With three young daughters to keep them busy, Sarah and Mark Steudlein had plenty of parenting experience by the time their fourth child, a son, was born in 2013.
They welcomed Luke into their bustling home, and he quickly became the apple of his big sisters’ eyes.
“He’s a super-happy little boy,” Sarah says. “He’s always smiling and laughing. He’s a joy to be around.”
As the months passed, the Steudleins noticed Luke was not developing at the same pace the girls had. He was not verbal and consistently missed developmental milestones.
At 2 years old, Luke still wasn’t speaking or making eye contact. The Steudleins knew he needed care, and they had many more questions than they could find answers for: Why wasn’t he speaking? Is he autistic? Where could they have him evaluated? If he were to be labeled autistic, what would that mean for him?
“We started looking for someone to decide if he was on the autism spectrum or not,” Sarah says. “A lot of people told us, ‘You need to go to a pediatric neurologist.’”
But she learned that a mere diagnosis wouldn’t mean Luke would begin receiving therapies and care.
In the meantime, the Steudleins enrolled Luke in a program called EarlySteps. The state-funded program provides early intervention for children from birth to 3 years old with delays in cognitive, motor, vision, hearing, and/or communication development.
Luke received excellent therapy in their home, Sarah says. But he would age out of the program at 3; and the next intervention program, available from a local public school in Central, doesn’t begin until 4 years of age. “We were looking at a one-year gap,” Sarah says.
During a chance encounter in a doctor’s office waiting room, Sarah found out from another parent about Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital Pediatric Development and Therapy Center, which has a program for infants and toddlers. The program offers a multidisciplinary assessment for infants born prematurely or children younger than 3 with special needs or developmental needs, including feeding problems.
The program is just one component of a wide spectrum of developmental care and therapy the Pediatric Development and Therapy Center provides. The center is the only medically based pediatric developmental clinic in Louisiana, where children can receive medical care and therapeutic services in one location. Led by Steven Felix, MD and Cindy Chestaro, MD, the staff is also Louisiana’s only developmental pediatric physician team.
Sarah made an appointment for Luke to see Dr. Felix, who assessed Luke and diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder. He prescribed further evaluations and determined Luke would benefit from several therapies: speech, physical and occupational.
This is where the Pediatric Development and Therapy Center is unique. The center provides patients with physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, in addition to the medical guidance of Drs. Felix and Chestaro. Soon, it will add a staff psychologist.
“Usually you have to seek out care all over; everyone has a waiting list, so care is fragmented, not under the same roof,” Sarah says.
In 2001, the center opened as the Child Assessment Center. In January 2011 the name changed to the Pediatric Development and Therapy Center with the addition of Dr. Felix. Dr. Chestaro recently joined in 2016 and the clinic now treats children from all over Louisiana, and pulls in patients from Mississippi and Alabama.
For younger kids, the center focuses on patients with autism and global development delays. For school-age kids, the center’s focus is learning problems, mental delays or attention deficit disorder.
Depending on a child’s needs, various specialists on the team evaluate children and make recommendations for additional evaluation and treatment.
“We have a more holistic approach to treating a child with developmental disabilities, including taking care of their medical issues,” Dr. Felix says. “We can focus on the specific needs a child with development disability has, the specific problems, and then be able to address them or make appropriate referrals sooner.”
Dr. Felix and Dr. Chestaro specialize in diagnosing, treating, and managing care of children with developmental and behavioral conditions, including autism, mental delays, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, learning disorders, speech disorders, behavioral disorders, ADHD, and Asperger’s.
For families like the Steudleins, the Pediatric Development and Therapy Center means their child receives coordinated care. After Luke sees the various specialists on a given day, the group meets afterwards to discuss his progress and treatment.
“I want to know the emotional implications; Dr. Felix wants to know the practical implications,” Sarah says. “He’s a project manager by profession; he focuses on solving problems. How do we fix this? What’s the big picture? Why are we doing the therapy? What’s the purpose behind it? What’s the benefit to Luke in the future? He’s a fierce papa bear who wants to make sure Luke and all of our children are taken care of and that we’re doing the right thing.”
Providing care and beneficial therapies for a child with developmental delays is a time-consuming, full-time gig, Steudlein says. But by approaching it as a family, and with the care and guidance of Dr. Felix’s team, Luke continues to make progress.
Parents interested in making an appointment with Pediatric Development and Therapy Center can request a new patient packet and ask their pediatrician for a referral.
Parents and pediatricians should watch for these common signs which are often red flags of developmental issues.