A 20-year-old Utah program that helps parents of children with disabilities now serves 5,000 families nationwide and continues to grow.

The SkiHi Institute, with headquarters at Utah State University since 1972, emerged from Dr. Thomas Clark's belief that if he could train parents of deaf infants to stimulate the home environment and work with the child, delays in development could be minimized."If we get to a hearing-impaired child before he or she is 30 months of age, we can gain approximately one month of language (both expressive and receptive) for every month the child is in the program," says Don Barringer, institute assistant director.

His assertion is backed by national statistics collected by the institute.

"Prior to 1972 we met kids at the school door who had no language communication system," Barringer recalls. "We knew that deaf children coming from deaf homes were far and away emotionally, academically and linguistically advanced compared to deaf children from hearing homes.

"The secret is to get to these kids and their parents when the kids are very young. Then they have a good chance to develop language before coming to school," Barringer explains.

"A stimulating home (or day care) setting is extremely important to a sensory impaired child's development, he says. "Whereas normal children absorb language like sponges from everything around them, a sensory impaired child needs more frequent, focused stimulation to achieve the same skills."

The first model the SkiHi Institute developed was at the Utah State School for the Deaf and Blind in Ogden in 1972. Clark's practical ideas to stimulate hearing-impaired children from a very young age in the home setting were tested, refined, retested and rewritten until a workable model emerged.

Then Clark sought federal funds to take the project beyond Utah's borders. One or more agencies and schools in nearly every state have adopted the model and requests for training strain the institute's ability to respond, Barringer notes.

In 1982, another model was developed for the multihandicapped, sensory-impaired child. Known as Proj-ect Insite, this model again serves parents and other primary caregivers in the home environment.

Since 1972, the institute has attracted more than $5 million in competitive grants to develop and disseminate SkiHi, the original home-based early intervention project, and Project Insite and other projects.

As needs increase, four other programs have emerged. They are: Proj-ect VIP, in which trained interveners work with children with handicaps in their homes while caretakers obtain vital respite; Tactile Signing Project, which teaches professionals and families of deaf-blind youngsters to communicate with the child with hand-on-hand signing; and Project REAP, which will compile national statistics for longitudinal research into the appropriate amount and intensity of treatment, and age at which treatment should begin.

The institute's first two projects, SkiHi and Insite, carry National Diffusion Network (NDN) validation, a federal designation for tested programs that really do what they say they'll do.

It means school districts, social service agencies and day care providers are assured of getting a practical, applicable program. SkiHi Outreach is in its third six-year validation as a NDN project; Insite is in the middle of its first validation.

The need for early invention services is growing, SkiHi researchers believe, faster than training and service programs can deliver. Medical and economic factors, as well as new federal laws, play important roles in the continuing need for expansion in SkiHi-type programs, Barringer points out.

"There's no question that medical science has greatly improved chances of survival for infants born prematurely or to drug or alcohol addicted or AIDS infected mothers," he says. "These at risk babies may have more than one disability."

The institute is developing plans to become a national resource Center. Parents and professionals seeking help with early home intervention with sensory-impaired children look to the institute for assistance," Barringer said.

"We have an excellent track rec-ord across the country and want to offer a broader range of services to existing and emerging programs," he concluded.