Understanding Special Needs

Your child may find it tough to understand people who are differently-abled. So, this International Day of Disabled Persons, help your child realise what it means to have ‘special needs’.

By Malini Gopalakrishnan

Understanding Special Needs

Before the world can change its perception of 'special needs' and 'disabilities', one needs to understand what the terms mean and how children with special needs are different. Gone are the days when lack of information caused everyone to tiptoe around these conditions. In theory, the term 'special needs' is used to clinically diagnose mental, physical or psychological disabilities that give rise to functional difficulties. However, in lay terms, 'special needs' becomes an umbrella term for a staggering array of conditions. Children who are diagnosed with having special needs may be suffering from a mild learning condition to a terminal, degenerative illness.

While the term 'special needs' is helpful in identifying and providing necessary services to such children or in addressing the troubles of a stressed out family, it also comes with its own set of limitations. 

It mainly refers to the limited abilities of the child and most people associate it with something tragic. Some parents spend their entire life bemoaning the fact that their child has to struggle to accomplish what others achieve easily. On the other hand, there are also parents who relish the joy of every little accomplishment. Take any two families with special-needs children and you will find an ocean of difference in terms of the challenges they face, the emotions they deal with, and their daily routines.

Although the term 'special needs' is used often, there is very little understanding about what it really means. 

Here are some of the different types of special needs in children:

Sensory impairment: Any condition which entails a loss or impairment of the sensory organs. This constitutes faculties such as hearing, vision, speech and olfactory senses. While a majority of such conditions can be treated and rehabilitated, some conditions persist lifelong and might require therapy and constant support.

Developmental disabilities: Includes delayed or abnormal development. This poses an enormous set of challenges to parents in caring for and educating children. These include conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome and Asperger Syndrome. 

Learning disability: An impairment in cognitive abilities that manifests as a certain type of learning-related disability. These differ from child to child based on the particular cognitive function that is affected; input (difficulty processing visual, audio or lingual information), integration (putting together the information and making sense of it), storage (memory-related deficit), output (having trouble expressing the information). While dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are commonly known learning disorders, others like discalculia (trouble with Maths and numbers) and disgraphia (trouble with writing or processing written text) are lesser known. The biggest challenge with learning disorders is that they are harder to spot and diagnose.

Behavioural issues: Children with such issues might not respond to the forms of care and discipline that work with other children. Conditions like ADHD, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) and Conduct Disorder (CD) are again difficult to identify and diagnose since many of these children are initially assumed to be 'difficult' or 'temperamental'. Often, these problems are sparked off or magnified by disruptive family dynamics that may involve alcohol, violence, etc.

Mental and psychological conditions: Delayed mental development, mental retardation fall under the bracket of intellectual disorders in children whereas persisting conditions such as anxiety, chronic depression, mood swings are classified as psychological disorders. While children with intellectual disorders have early symptoms that can be diagnosed easily, psychological disorders take longer to be detected and thus, tend to sneak up on parents.

Medical conditions: This bracket includes children suffering from debilitating chronic conditions such as heart disease, muscular dystrophy, cancer, cystic fibrosis and congenital conditions such as dwarfism, immunodeficiency diseases, cerebral palsy, etc. These children may suffer from long bouts of extremely poor health, interspersed with numerous tests, hospital stays and prolonged medication. These factors have a severe impact on a normal childhood and take a heavy toll on both the parents and the children.

While each one of these conditions is markedly different from another, there is a great deal of similarity between the parenting concerns of special-needs children  identifying, diagnosing and treating the condition coupled with the need to find the right kind of support, schooling and home environment. Parents of special-needs children are special themselves; they are stronger, braver and more resilient than others, doing the best they can for their ‘special’ children.

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