What are special needs?
Special needs is an umbrella term for a huge range of conditions and disabilities including:
- Physical, neurological, chromosomal and genetic conditions and disabilities
- Developmental disabilities (for example, Autistic Spectrum Disorder or problems with speech and language)
- Specific learning difficulties (for example, dyslexia)
- Emotional, behavioural and social problems.
Is my child developing normally?
Many disabilities and conditions are diagnosed soon after or even before birth, but others only become apparent when children do not meet the different developmental stages at the expected time (walking and talking for instance), or encounter new challenges such as starting nursery or school.Often parents suspect their child is somehow different from a very early age. Parents might choose to leave these as niggling concerns, or they may seek advice early on. In many cases they find that professionals are unable or unwilling to act on their worries until the child is older and the extent of the problems is clearer.
Parents often also find that their own friends, anxious not to cause upset or worry, automatically seek to reassure and bat away any concerns which are raised. 'Oh, Jack does that too,' or 'she'll grow out of it' are common reactions even if a parent is actually describing an extreme or unusually prolonged behaviour.
A two- year-old throwing the odd tantrum is to be expected for instance, while melt-downs which regularly last hours might signal a problem.
While development does follow a broadly predictable pattern in the early years, there are plenty of inconsequential variations within this. It is important not to panic if your child is not the first to crawl, walk or talk, or finds settling into a new environment harder than other children.
It is of course natural to compare your child's development with his or her peers, but do remember that many delays are just that, and well within the normal range. As with adults, children are interested in different things. Your child may simply prefer to practice running around climbing rather than having lengthy conversations or vice versa.
The tendency of many parents to show off their children's achievements (apart from being a bit annoying) can also lead parents of children on different developmental trajectories to worry unnecessarily. The fact that your child isn't reading chapter books, riding a bike, tying their shoe laces, potty trained or speaking three languages by the age of two is really not a cause for concern.
"Don't over-compare with other children, even siblings," advises Dr Robert Scott-Jupp, a Consultant Paediatrician at Salisbury District Hospital. "There are a lot of sources of information suggesting very specific ages by which children should do certain things.
The point about children is that they are hugely variable and they do things at their own rate – the nature of child development is that it changes. Sometimes expectations are unrealistic or it may be that a child is just a little slower in one area but will soon catch up naturally – speech is a prime example of this.
Bear in mind also that the pre-school years throw up a huge number of changes and challenges for children, and their reaction to these is not always predictable and explicit. New siblings, different childcare arrangements, developing motor and communication skills, burgeoning independence, even potty training can be a big deal for a small child.
Anxiety, apparent regression in skills and behavioural changes are quite possibly a short-term way of processing what is happening in their world.
That said, do not automatically dismiss any worries which are raised by family or childcare providers who see your child regularly and know them well. Parents are sometimes so accustomed to their particular child's behaviour or needs that they may not realise when things are significantly different. This may be particularly true if the child is a first born.
Common causes for concern
One of the most common reasons parents worry is delayed speech or language development. (Very loosely speech is actually saying the words and language is about understanding and being able to use words appropriately).
Children vary enormously in the rate they develop their speech and language skills and delays are often just that. But if your child is not speaking in short sentences, is very hard to understand by the age of three, or struggles to understand what is said to them you could consult your doctor.
There are also signs of physical disabilities which parents may miss. Marked preference for use of one hand or side of the body (asymmetry) should be mentioned to your doctor as it might indicate motor problems.
What do parents say?
Helen, mother of Freddie, 10, says:
"We knew Freddie's behaviour was different, more extreme than his peers, but we could never put our finger on why. I concluded it must be bad parenting and felt very guilty.
"His toddler years were marked by disastrous trips to play groups, play dates which ended with other children in tears and frequent reports of bad behaviour from nursery. He struggled to share, take turns, play nicely.
"It was only when he started school that a teacher pointed out a pattern and he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. You don't assume your child will be different, and so unless signs are very obvious they may not come onto your radar."
Carrie, mother of Emily, five, says:
"Emily did everything later than all my friends' babies – sitting, reaching, crawling, but it was only really when they were all starting to chat and Emily had no speech that I became really concerned. It took a long time to get any conclusion but we started speech therapy early so we felt we were helping her."
Medical advice should always be sought if you have concerns about any of the above.