Special needs is an umbrella term teachers and doctors sometimes use covering dozens of physical, mental health, educational, and neurological conditions. However, the term special needs has no legal meaning despite being widely used in the educational and medical communities.
Generally, the term applies to those who require accommodation in their home life or educational setting and meet a standard list of medically defined criteria. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is listed in the DSM-5 and is considered a developmental disability; therefore, children with ADHD may qualify for special education services at school.
This article covers what a special needs designation means, how it could affect someone’s schooling, and why parents should embrace special education services. It also provides tips on how to help your child if they don’t qualify for special education assistance at school.
Do Kids with ADHD have Special Needs?
If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD by a medical professional, they may be eligible for special education services within their school.
Within the educational setting, the term special needs typically refers to:
- Speech and language disorders
- Emotional and behavioral disorders
- Physical differences such as amputated limbs, dwarfism, hearing loss, or vision loss
- Learning disabilities such as dyslexia or dysgraphia
- Tourette's syndrome
- Congenital disorders such as Downs syndrome or cerebral palsy
For an individual to be diagnosed with ADHD, they must show a consistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with their development or daily functioning.
As of 1999, ADHD/ADD is recognized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, not all children with ADHD will qualify for special education services. To qualify for special education, your child's ADHD must affect their educational performance.
Signs and Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Makes careless mistakes
- Inattention to details
- Struggles to focus on activities or play
- Seems not to listen when directly spoken to
- Fails to follow through on instructions, schoolwork, or chores
- Has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
- Avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to participate in tasks
- requiring sustained mental effort
- Loses things
- Easily distracted
- Forgetful in daily activities
- Easily feel overwhelmed
- Behind in social skills compared to peers
- Frequently interrupts or blurts things out
For more information, check out this helpful fact sheet for parents from the CDC.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that your child's school must evaluate a student at no cost to the parents if there is reason to believe the student has a disability/disorder impacting their education. Additionally, parents can request an evaluation if their child has been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD.
If, via the evaluation, it is determined a child would benefit from special education intervention and/or other disabilities are discovered as a result of the evaluation, school personnel will work with the parents and develop either a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP)
Implications of Being Considered Special Needs
Often, a child with ADHD qualifies for appropriate modifications within their regular classroom. These modifications may include access to sensory toys or fidgets, a standing desk, or extra time on standardized tests.
However, some parents fear the stigma attached to their child being labeled and worry how it will affect their school career.
Benefits of Receiving Special Education Services
The benefits of receiving special education services far outweigh the drawbacks. For example, suppose your child is eligible for special education because of ADHD or another specific learning disability. In that case, your child's teacher will have access to the tools needed to improve their academic performance.
If your child is part of the public education school system or a charter school and you suspect or know they have ADHD, they are entitled to an evaluation at the very least. While a diagnosis of ADHD does not automatically qualify them for special education, it alerts their teacher and the school to potential reasons they are struggling academically or behaviorally in school.
Accommodation access will be geared toward the student's specific needs if approved. For example, if his or her difficulties make it challenging to sit, focus, and write, they receive a standing desk, wobble chair, movement breaks, and adaptive voice tools.
ADHD children may also have access to a quiet area to complete work, sensory toys or fidgets, extra time to complete assignments or tests, a teacher's aid reading the text to them during tests, or specialized assignments geared toward their strengths.
The term special needs is embarrassing and even offensive to some individuals. Some children even rebel against the idea of receiving accommodations in school for fear of other students teasing them.
Likewise, many parents resist the idea of their child being labeled or taking part in special education because of the stigma that they have done something wrong, or their child isn't intelligent.
However, parents and children must understand that attention deficit disorder or other specific learning disabilities are unrelated to intelligence. Like a physical health impairment, ADD/ADHD is a condition outside your child's control. It simply means their brain functions differently.
Most parents wouldn't deny their child help for a physical health impairment, so they must view learning and developmental disabilities similarly.
The earlier your child's schooling intervention starts, the better your child will be in the long run! If a child qualifies for services early in their academic career, it will become their norm. And as your child progresses and grows, so will their special education plan.
One of the best things parents can do is talk to their children about their condition honestly and openly. ADHD does not have to be seen as unfavorable, just that the brain and body function differently! If students understand why they receive accommodations at school and the benefits, they're more likely to be cooperative.
How to Support a Child with ADHD When they Don't Qualify for Special Education
Schools spend a lot of time evaluating children for special education and related services, and unfortunately, not all students meet the criteria to receive in-school accommodations. However, if your child falls into this category, there are still things you and the school can do to aid them!
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Other Ways to Help
- Maintain an open dialogue with your child's teacher and the school. Even if a student isn't eligible to work with an IEP team or receive 504, the teachers and schools are likely still willing to supply help when and where possible!
- Consider stimulant medication. There are many ADHD medications available, and one may help your child!
- Work with other professionals such as an OT, therapist or ADHD coach, as well as a tutor to boost your child's progress.
- Talk to your child about their disability and teach them self-regulation tips and tricks.
- Create a quiet space at home for your child to complete school work.
- Keep them physically active. Find something they love, like team sports, dance class, or even walks around the neighborhood. Exercise stimulates the brain in healthy ways!
- Praise their efforts and successes, and avoid nagging!
The term special needs is broad and outdated and occasionally has a stigma. However, parents should embrace their child's diagnosis and use it to empower their child's educational progress.
In many cases, children with ADHD are eligible for special education, and all parents need to do is contact school personnel to begin the process.
However, not all students with ADHD are eligible for official help at school. But understanding your and your child's rights is essential. The U.S. Department of Education is an excellent resource for information on the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and Section 504.
Whether or not your child's school recognizes their disability, parents should still reach out to the teacher to see what accommodations could still occur. Teachers understand that students have varying abilities, and most schools are willing to work with a student who wants to learn!
Keep your child physically active, teach self-regulation tools, and work with their pediatrician to decide if medication is right for them.