Special Needs

“Special Needs” is an umbrella underneath which an 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 or serious mental impairment. The designation is useful for getting needed services, setting appropriate goals, and gaining understanding for a child and stressed family.

Important factors that affect children with special needs

Mental Health Issues:

Living with a child with mental health issues can put family members on a roller coaster of mood swings and crises and defiance. Parents have to find the right professionals to help, and make decisions about therapy, medications, and hospitalization.

Developmental Issues:

Developmental disabilities are some of the challenges a family has to deal with, changing visions of the future and providing immediate difficulties in caring for and educating a child. Diagnoses like autism, Down syndrome and intellectual disabilities often cause children to be removed from the mainstream, and parents must be 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 Central Auditory Processing Disorder struggle with schoolwork regardless of their intellectual abilities. They require specialized learning strategies to meet their potential and avoid self-esteem problems and behavioural difficulties. Parents of learning-challenged kids need to be persistent both in working with their reluctant learners and with the schools that must provide the help these children need.

Common Concerns:

Although every special-needs child is different and every family is unique, there are some common concerns that link parents of challenged kids, including getting appropriate care and accommodations; promoting acceptance in the extended family, school and community; planning for an uncertain future; and adjusting routines and expectations.

Types of special needs conditions and disorders

Genetic chromosomal conditions

Genetic disorders
These occur where there is a problem with an individual’s DNA.

Single gene disorders
This is where a problem occurs in a single gene. Cystic fibrosis is an example of a single gene disorder.

Chromosomal disorders
This is caused by fewer, additional, or altered sets of chromosomes. Down’s syndrome is a chromosomal disorder.

Multifactorial disorders
These are caused by mutations in multiple genes, which may interact with environmental factors. Multifactorial disorders tend to occur later in life, such as colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Unique – support for chromosomal disorders

Down’s syndrome

Down’s syndrome (also known as Down syndrome and Trisomy 21) is a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra chromosome in a person’s DNA. It’s not hereditary, or a disease, but instead occurs by chance at conception. There are around 60,000 people with Down’s syndrome in the UK.

Angelman syndrome
This is a chromosomal (neuro-genetic) disorder caused by the absence of a gene. People with Angelman syndrome will have developmental delay, little or no speech, seizures, and walking and balance disorders.

Sotos syndrome

This is a genetic disorder characterised by excessive physical growth during the first few years of a child’s life. Children with Sotos syndrome are usually large at birth and often heavier, taller and have larger heads than is normal for their age.

Cystic fibrosis
CF is an inherited disease. Around one in 25 people in the UK carries the faulty gene that causes CF, and if two carriers have a child, there is a one in four chance their baby will have CF. It affects the internal organs (especially the lungs and digestive system) by clogging them with thick, sticky mucus, which makes it hard to breathe and digest food.

Fragile X
Fragile X (also known as Martin-Bell syndrome) is the most common known cause of inherited learning disabilities. It is caused by a ‘fragile’ or broken site on the X chromosome and affects more males than females. It can cause a wide range of difficulties with learning, as well as social, language, emotional and behavioural problems.

Social communication disorders and conditions

This is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to other people. It’s also known as austistic spectrum disorder, or ASD. People with autism have difficulties with everyday social interaction. Autism is often described as a ‘spectrum disorder’ because the condition affects people in many different ways and to varying degrees.

Asperger syndrome

This is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome may have difficulties in social relationships and  communicating, and limitations in social imagination and creative play. Asperger syndrome has many similarities with high-functioning autism (in fact, some argue that there is no need for the two terms).

Deficit in Attention Motor control and Perception (DAMP)

DAMP describes having some or all ADHD characteristics, as well as having motor difficulties and problems interpreting what you see and what you hear.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

ADHD (sometimes called hyperkinetic disorder) and attention deficit disorder (ADD) refer to a range of behavioural disorders or problem behaviours associated with poor attention span. These may include restlessness and hyperactivity, and often prevent children from socialising and learning.

Selective mutism

This is an anxiety disorder that affects both children and adults. People with selective mutism find it hard or impossible to speak in certain situations or to certain people, although they can speak normally when they are comfortable, for example, at home. Around eight in 1,000 people are thought to be affected.

General developmental disorders

Global developmental delay
If a child has delayed achievement of one or more developmental milestones (eg motor skills, speech and language skills, social skills) this is called developmental delay. Global developmental delay is the term used when a child has delays in all areas of development. There may be an underlying cause that is already known or can be diagnosed (such as a chromosomal or genetic disorder) or the underlying cause may be unknown. One mum says: “GDD is a phrase that’s so often given to parents, but really it means nothing and everything.”

Hypomelanosis of Ito
An extremely rare syndrome affecting pigmentation of the skin (also known as Incontinentia pigmenti achromians or IPA). It may be associated with seizures and developmental delay. Related conditions include pigmentary mosaicism and Ito syndrome.

Sensory processing disorder
SPD, also known as sensory integration dysfunction, is a complex disorder of the brain which means that sensory signals from the body are not processed by the brain in the usual way. A person with SPD may find it difficult to process and act on information received through their senses, and so struggle to perform everyday tasks. It is thought about one in 20 people is affected by SPD.


Also called developmental coordination disorders, or DCD. Children with dyspraxia have difficulties with motor coordination (tasks such as crawling, walking, jumping and fine coordination) when compared to children of the same age. People with dyspraxia may also experience problems with delayed speech or other speech problems. Dyspraxia is a life-long condition, but people are often undiagnosed and characterised instead as ‘clumsy’ or ‘arkward’.

Verbal dyspraxia

Verbal dyspraxia may occur alone or with other dyspraxic symptoms. It’s thought that children with verbal dyspraxia have a problem with making the precise movements needed to coordinate speech.


This causes a tendency to have recurrent seizures (or fits). A seizure is caused by a sudden burst of excess electrical activity in the brain, which causes a temporary disruption in the messages passing between brain cells, which in turn results in the brain’s normal messages being scrambled.

Semantic pragmatic disorder

SPD is a term used to describe children with possible autistic spectrum tendencies and communication problems caused by specific language difficulties, for example talking in memorised phrases rather than putting words together freely.

Tourette’s syndrome

Tourette’s syndrome (sometimes known as multiple tic disorder or tic spectrum disorder) is an inherited neurological (brain) condition that results in involuntary and uncontrollable sounds and movements.

Auditory Processing Disorder

People with APD have difficulties processing auditory (verbal) information. APD is not a hearing problem, but an inability to process what is heard.

Congenital bilateral perisylvian syndrome

CBPS describes a malformation in the structure of the brain. There is a very wide spectrum in how this affects people, varying from severe brain impairments and epilepsy to very mild cognitive impairments. Lissencephaly is an umbrella term for brain disorders of the type including CBPS.

Mylagic encephalomyelitis (ME)

Mylagic encephalomyelitis, also known as ME, is a neurological disorder characterised by debilitating physical and mental exhaustion following normal, everyday activities. The symptoms of ME can include muscle and joint pain, disordered sleep, gastric disturbances and poor memory and concentration. The majority of people affected experience a fluctuating pattern of recovery and relapse. It affects up to 150,000 people in the UK.

Mobility and muscular disorders

Cerebral palsy
CP includes a variety of conditions, and is not an illness or disease itself. Instead, it is the description of a physical impairment that affects movement. No two people with CP are the same, and the degree to which it affects people varies from barely noticeable to extremely severe. CP is most commonly the result of failure of a part of the brain to develop properly or damage to the brain, either before or during birth, or in early childhood. There are three main types of CP (which correspond to injuries to different parts of the brain):

  • Spastic CP: muscles become weak and stiff, especially under effort, which can affect movements.
  • Athetoid CP: causes some loss of control of posture, which may also affect other movements.
  • Ataxic CP: causes problems with balance, and sometimes irregular speech and shaky hand movements.

Muscular Dystrophy
The terms ‘muscle disease’, ‘muscular dystrophy’, ‘neuromuscular conditions’ and ‘neuromuscular disorders’ all describe a large spectrum of conditions affecting the muscles or the nerves which control the muscles.


Hypermobility describes the joint laxity that results from connective tissue problems, which causes joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments to be laxer and more fragile than is the case for most people. With this comes vulnerability to the effects of injury.

Special educational needs

‘Special educational needs’ (SEN) is a phrase oft-used in schools and nurseries, and comes attached with its own SENCO (special educational needs coordinator) and other jargon.

But you can have special educational needs without coming under the special needs umbrella – for example, a child with dyslexia would be considered to have SEN but would not really be considered a child with special needs. However, children with special needs would have special educational needs. Still confused? If so, don’t ask us to explain Gifted & Talented…

This is a learning difficulty that makes it extremely difficult to read, write, and spell. Dyslexia is not linked to intelligence or lack of intelligence.


This is a problem with writing by hand. Children and adults with dysgraphia have messy or illegible handwriting and may write with a mix of upper and lower case letters.

Information obtained from www.mumsnet.com