Mapping the Journey from Birth to Kindergarten: Medical Specialists Glossary
Here, we provide an overview of the primary medical specialties that serve children with disabilities, with a description of the services they typically offer.
Primary Care Pediatrician
Primary care physicians or general pediatricians (GPs) provide routine medical care and yearly “well” check-ups. They also have the opportunity to be the first point of contact or referral when parents have concerns about their child’s development or behavior.
For children with developmental, learning, or behavioral issues, a developmental pediatrician has the training and experience necessary to provide a big-picture view of care. They work with families to coordinate and prioritize recommended services. They provide evaluations to help diagnose complex issues, as well as ongoing assessments and consultations with other professionals involved in your child’s care, and create and monitor an overall plan of care for your child. The developmental pediatrician can also function as an advocate in a school setting, with insurance companies, and in obtaining government-funded services.
Psychologists and Psychiatrists
Clinical Child Psychologist
Child psychologists specialize in treating children with a range of disorders and behavioral issues. They can provide psychotherapy and administer psychological assessments and tests. They may play a role in diagnosing and treating learning or developmental disorders, and work with the child’s healthcare team to create an individualized treatment plan. While they do not prescribe medications, they may work with a medical professional who does, and they can monitor the child’s response to the medication.
- A developmental psychologist specializes in certain ages and stages of people’s lives. A developmental psychologist who specializes in childhood development evaluates children to determine whether or not they have developmental disabilities. Some may work in schools and learning centers, while others work with children in their homes, in hospitals or in mental health facilities. Those with a background in developmental psychology may work in the school setting as an early childhood education specialist or behavioral therapist.
- Most have a doctoral level of education and typically work in research or at universities.
- Developmental psychology is an indirect psychology practice and is not considered a health service delivery model (diagnosing and treatment are in the realm of the child psychologist).
An educational psychologist is a qualified teacher who is also trained as a psychologist. They often work with parents, teachers, and children to assess the child’s development, find out about any learning problems, recommend therapies and in-classroom tools, or identify a child’s unmet emotional needs. They might work in a school setting or in private practice.
- Neuropsychology is a specialty field within clinical psychology. Neuropsychologists are dedicated to understanding the functioning of the brain and how it relates to behavior and cognitive ability. They are trained to administer and interpret psychological and educational tests and to assess cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and social functions. A neuropsychologist can help diagnose a cognitive, behavioral, or neurological condition; administer a variety of tests to reveal issues that may impact behavior and learning; and refer patients to clinical psychologists and other specialists for therapy. Note that they often do not provide therapy themselves and they do not prescribe medication.
- Seeing a neuropsychologist and completing their tests can lead to a deeper understanding of a child’s condition. Areas of specialization include epilepsy, chiari malformation, neuromuscular disorders, and/or sleep disorders.
- A pediatric psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and the treatment of disorders of thinking, feeling, and/or behavior that affect children, adolescents, and their families. They provide comprehensive care which can include evaluating and diagnosing disorders and other mental health issues, prescribing and monitoring medications, and providing psychotherapy for the child and/or parents.
- Areas of speciality include treating those with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, mood disorders, tics/Tourette syndrome, as well as psychiatric and psychological symptoms that occur with other medical conditions.
Pediatric neurologists are medical doctors who work with children and specialize in treating conditions that affect the brain and nervous system. Specialty areas include autism, complex metabolic disorders, muscle and nerve disease, genetic conditions, multiple sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, and malformations. They also help treat those who struggle with headaches, epilepsy and seizures, sleep issues, or developmental conditions. Pediatric neurologists work with children who have genetic or congenital conditions. They are trained to evaluate and diagnose conditions and prescribe and monitor medication.
Epileptologists are neurologists who specialize in the research, diagnosis, treatment, and management of epilepsy. They are physicians who are trained in neurology and have also completed specialized training and study of epilepsy. Epileptologists will often provide comprehensive care for those suffering from epilepsy, which may begin with a series of tests to ensure the correct diagnosis. Following a diagnosis of epilepsy, they often attempt to determine the causes of the seizures and utilize other treatment techniques that may help manage the condition before prescribing medications. They typically work in hospitals, private practice, epilepsy clinics, or in academic settings.
Pediatric ophthalmologists are medical doctors who have extensive specialized training in examining, diagnosing, and treating eye conditions in infants, children, and adolescents. Because pediatric ophthalmologists perform eye operations, they are both surgical and medical specialists. Areas of speciality may include craniofacial abnormalities, neurological eye disorders, retinopathy of prematurity, strabismus (eye misalignment in children and adults), and tear duct obstructions (blocked tear duct).
- Neuro-ophthalmology is a subspecialty of both neurology and ophthalmology. Neuro-ophthalmologists specialize in vision problems that relate to the nervous system. This includes vision problems due to brain injuries or diseases from trauma, stroke, or infection.
- A neuro-ophthalmologist can diagnose and treat neurological and systemic diseases that affect your sight and the movement of your eyes. They test patients using electroretinography, optical coherence tomography, and multifocal electroretinography (EGR).
Optometrists are primary health care practitioners trained in primary eye care and disease treatment. They are not trained medical professionals so they do not perform eye surgery. Care includes routine vision tests, complete eye examinations, diagnosis of some eye conditions, prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses, and minor surgical procedures.
A vision therapist specializes in a sequence of eye exercises that are used to improve the quality and efficiency of vision. It is also called vision training. Vision therapy helps patients’ eyes work more efficiently so they can perform daily tasks like reading and writing with more ease.
A pediatric audiologist’s primary role is the early detection and treatment of hearing loss in children. They will often provide newborn hearing screening, comprehensive audiologic evaluations, auditory brainstem response (ABR) evaluation, auditory steady state response (ASSR) evaluation, hearing aid services, and cochlear implant evaluation and mapping. Areas of specialization include chronic ear disease, congenital ear malformations, speech and language delays, and children who have a history of hospitalization in neonatal care units or meningitis. Audiologists may also collaborate with other specialists in diagnosing a child with certain conditions. For example, they may work with speech and language pathologists (SLPs) in evaluating and treating a child with Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) and the identification of language disorders that occur in association with CAPD.
Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctor (ENT)
Pediatric otolaryngologists, often referred to as a pediatric ENT (ear, nose, and throat doctor), is a doctor who specializes in the diseases and disorders of the ears, nose, throat, head, and neck. ENTs provide diagnoses and treatments for the full array of conditions affecting infants and children, such as hearing loss and ear diseases, allergy and sinus disease, voice and swallowing abnormalities, airway problems, cleft lip and palate, and acquired and congenital head and neck masses. Pediatric ENTs also manage and treat disorders of the head and neck.
Pediatric Orthopedic Surgeon
Pediatric orthopedic surgeons are specialists who treat musculoskeletal (bone, joint, back, or muscle) problems in children. Their specialty training is particularly valuable when treating bones that are still growing. They diagnose and treat a variety of problems including children who have issues with walking, crooked limbs, legs of different lengths, curves in the spine, broken bones, bone/joint infections or tumors, spasticity, cerebral palsy, dystonia, and congenital abnormalities of the hands or feet.
An orthotist is someone who has a medical specialty focused on supporting weak or ineffective joints and muscles using special mechanical equipment. Orthotists determine which devices will be most beneficial for their patients. They build, construct, design, and modify devices to meet a child’s specific treatment needs, and work in collaboration with other medical professionals — including physicians, therapists, and orthopedic surgeons — to coordinate treatment goals and evaluate progress.
Genetics is a medical specialty that focuses on genes, so a geneticist studies genetic conditions and/or congenital disabilities. They often test to see if the cause of a condition is inherited, or if there is something in a person’s DNA code that explains their condition.
A neurogeneticist specializes in neurogenetic conditions that affect children and adults. They evaluate, diagnose, and provide comprehensive care including genetic counseling and testing for rare neurological disorders. This includes understanding the disorders they diagnose and manage in efforts to develop novel treatments. Neurogeneticists also coordinate with other specialists to ensure optimal care for each patient and their family. Conditions treated include mitochondrial disease, leukodystrophies, neuromuscular disorders, severe epilepsy syndromes, and undiagnosed neurological conditions.
Cardiology is a medical specialty focused on the heart and circulation. Pediatric cardiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating heart problems in children.
Physicians and nurse practitioners in pediatric urology offer expertise in a broad range of health concerns, from common conditions like bed-wetting and urinary tract infections to more serious and complex issues including congenital malformations. Children and teens are especially sensitive to problems that might include an overactive bladder, bed-wetting, pain while urinating, or incontinence (leaking urine). Urologists may have special expertise in hypospadias, urinary obstruction, urine reflux, renal stones, voiding dysfunctions, and urological conditions caused by neurological problems such as spina bifida.
Pediatric Gastroenterologist (GI)
Pediatric gastroenterology is a medical specialty focused on the digestive system (esophagus, stomach, and intestines). Gastroenterologists are also referred to as GI doctors. A pediatric GI is an expert in treating children who have problems with their digestive system, liver, and/or nutrition. Pediatric GIs treat children from the newborn period through the teen years. They provide treatment for such issues as lactose intolerance, food allergies or intolerances, chronic constipation, bedwetting and incontinence, feeding disorders, vomiting, chronic abdominal pain, and feeding tubes.
Endocrinology is a medical specialty focused on the glands, such as the thyroid gland, lymph nodes, spleen, and liver, and the hormones they produce. If a child has problems with growth, puberty, diabetes, or other disorders related to hormones and the glands that produce them, a pediatric endocrinologist may treat them.