What is special needs?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

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After my last piece, I realised that many readers were unaware of what the term 'special needs' really means and who it categorises. It is also becoming apparent that many parents of children with special needs do not themselves understand the term. In fact, some persons said that my son is not special needs because of his prematurity (partially true) and asked how is it that he is doing well in school even though he is special needs.

I think it is important for us to understand clearly what this category means as it will lend to a more specified and structured approach for special needs.

Special needs, as the name suggests, refers to children who have some special need. It is an umbrella underneath which a wide array of diagnoses can be wedged. Children with special needs may have mild learning disabilities or profound cognitive impairment; food allergies or terminal illness; developmental delays that catch up quickly or remain entrenched; occasional panic attacks; serious psychiatric problems or some physical disability. Some may need communication, memory, attention, speech and cognitive rehabilitation.

It does not automatically mean a special needs child is slow or has a mental or physical impairment. Special needs children with some commonalities may not have the same diagnosis either. On the surface one could say a child with special needs is unable to do something or has not met particular milestones. It speaks to the degree to which the child is able to function "normally" whether at home, school or just in general. Having a special need does not automatically determine your ability to achieve particular pursuits, in some cases it may, and in others it may not.

Special needs in the educational system can mean a child who may have challenges learning or functioning in how regular mainstream classrooms are structured. A very simple example, a child with ADHD or say dyslexia may receive special assistance in the regular classroom or be taken out to a special setting where specialised strategies are employed to help them learn. It can even include a child who simply does not learn concepts the usual way but will learn and do well if taught an alternate way. In these cases children can achieve desired educational pursuits once they are taught how they learn.

In fact in some spheres children who are gifted are classified as special needs as the regular structure cannot meet the needs of that child. This is not to say there are not cases where children may struggle to keep up irrespective of intervention as in some cases a child's special need can hamper particular outcomes. I am simply saying assumptions must not be made; a unique assessment and approach is needed for each child so that children can be put in the right category where they can get help.

As for my son, he is not special needs simply by being premature, as not all preemies end up having special needs. It has more to do with how they are progressing as they grow and develop, how are they coping and are they achieving milestones by the expected age. So it depends on the child and the various factors they faced and how they were affected. My son has special needs based on how he was impacted by extreme prematurity (coming three months early), coupled with extremely small birth weight compounded by a stormy, lengthy hospitalisation further exacerbated by continued medical challenges. There is no current evidence of intellectual impairment as he is currently learning at age level and has met many milestones, however, there are some areas he has not yet met fully such as speech, gross motor, and he is generally unable to manage himself in some ways other five year olds can; however continued improvement is evident. He therefore needs assistance in the form of a shadow, smaller classroom and developmental therapy to cope and improve, thus having special needs. It's not the prematurity itself that places him in this category but the resulting factors.

When you step into the world of special needs you will find it is one where the cases are very unique and varied. No two are the same; not even children with the same diagnosis such as autism are the same or have the same ability or will have the same outcome. I find also that persons tend to assume what a child's diagnosis is based on some peculiarity that they see; I have had it with my son. For me no assumptions or limitations must be put on any child. If we do not categorise properly, then some kids with special needs will get lost as their unique needs will not be met. Most importantly, if assumptions are made about a child's ability based on his limitations, he will not be given the opportunity to excel as well as he could have.

Sara, mom to five year old Amari, is an advocate for children with developmental delays. Amari was born three months early at one pound, and was hospitalised for three and a half months after birth. Check this space every couple weeks as Sara tackles the issue of children with special needs. Email her at francis.m.sara@gmail.com




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