What It Means When a Child Has "Special Needs"

Special Needs Children Cover an Array of Diagnoses

Two Kids at School
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"Special needs" is an umbrella term for a staggering array of diagnoses. Children with special needs may have mild learning disabilities or profound cognitive impairment; they may have food allergies or a terminal illness. A child's special needs may include developmental delays that catch up quickly or remain entrenched. It may also refer to children with occasional panic attacks or serious psychiatric problems.

No matter the reason, the designation is useful. It can help you obtain needed services, set appropriate goals, and gain an understanding for a child and stressed family.

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.

The point is that "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 and 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.

Children with medical issues may require numerous tests, long hospital stays, expensive equipment, and accommodations for disabilities. Your family may have to deal with frequent crises, uncertainty, and worry. In any case, establishing a good support system is very important.

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.

If these strategies are not developed and used, kids with behavior issues can throw their families into chaos. It also increases the risk for problems at school. As a parent, you will need to be flexible, creative, and patient. 

Developmental Issues

Developmental disabilities are some of the most devastating for a family to deal with.

This 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. The consequences of missed clues and wrong guesses can be significant.

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.