What It Means When a Child Has Special Needs

An Array of Diagnoses and Challenges

Special needs is an umbrella term for a wide array of diagnoses, from those that resolve quickly to those that will be a challenge for life and those that are relatively mild to those that are profound. It covers developmental delays, medical conditions, psychiatric conditions, and congenital conditions that require accommodations so children can reach their potentials. No matter the reason, the designation is useful. It can help you obtain needed services, set appropriate goals, and gain an understanding of your child and the stresses your family may face.

special needs issues in children
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Challenges and Triumphs

Special needs are commonly defined by what a child can't do—milestones unmet, foods banned, activities avoided, or experiences denied. These hindrances can hit families hard and may make special needs seem like a tragic designation.

Some parents will always mourn their child's lost potential, and some conditions become more troubling with time. Other families may find that their child's challenges make triumphs sweeter and that weaknesses are often accompanied by amazing strengths.

Each Family Has Different Concerns

Pick any two families of children with special needs and they may seem to have little in common. A family dealing with developmental delays will have different concerns than one dealing with chronic illness. These families will have different anxieties than one dealing with mental illness, learning problems, or behavioral challenges.

Special needs is a very broad term and every situation is unique. Families should focus on seeking the help and guidance needed for their particular concerns.

Medical Issues

Medical issues for children include serious conditions like cancer, heart defects, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis. It also includes chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes, congenital conditions like cerebral palsy and dwarfism, and health threats like food allergies and obesity. A child may need frequent medical testing, hospital stays, equipment, and accommodations for disabilities. Establishing a good support system is very important when dealing with the uncertainty and any medical crises.

Behavior Issues

Children with behavior issues may not respond to traditional discipline. Diagnoses like ADHD, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), dysfunction of sensory integration, and Tourette's syndrome require specialized strategies that are tailored to their specific needs. Behavior issues can increase the risk for problems at school. As a parent, you will need to be flexible, creative, and patient.

Developmental Issues

Developmental disabilities can change your visions of the future and provide immediate difficulties in caring for and educating your child. Diagnoses like autism, Down syndrome, and intellectual disabilities often cause children to be removed from the mainstream. Quite often, parents become fierce advocates to make sure their children receive the services, therapy, schooling, and inclusion they need and deserve.

Learning Issues

Children with learning disabilities like dyslexia and auditory processing disorder (APD) struggle with schoolwork regardless of their intellectual abilities. They require specialized learning strategies to meet their potential and avoid self-esteem problems and behavioral difficulties.

Parents of learning-challenged kids need to be persistent. This includes working with your child at home as well as teachers and schools to ensure they get all the help they need.

Mental Health Issues

Realizing that your child suffers from anxiety or depression or has attachment difficulties can be unexpected. Again, every child will be different, yet these can leave your family dealing with a roller coaster of mood swings, crises, and defiance. It's important that parents find the right professionals to help. You will also need to make decisions about therapy, medications, and, possibly, hospitalization.

A Word From Verywell

Although every special needs child is different and every family is unique, there are some common concerns that link parents. These include getting appropriate care and promoting acceptance in the extended family, school, and community. For some, planning for an uncertain future may be necessary. You will also find yourself adjusting routines and expectations, sometimes quite often.

Out of necessity, parents of children with special needs are often more flexible, compassionate, stubborn, and resilient than other parents. While it may not be something you had hoped for or expected, it is important for your child that you try to do your best. You can take comfort in the fact that you're not alone, so feel comfortable reaching out for support.

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