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Article published 9th June 2008

... or are their difficulties part of 'normal childhood'?

A child may be considered naughty, a fidget, a daydreamer - symptoms of everyday childhood, but  also ones that can conceal underlying special needs. Some develop coping strategies...

You don't need a formal diagnosis to request help for your child. If you suspect your child has a 'learning difference, difficulty or has a disability' or you're just worried, seek advice.

Defining children with special educational needs

Children with special educational needs are defined as those who have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn than most children of the same age. These can be social, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, physical, sensory or a mixture of some or all.

Getting a timely special educational needs (SEN) diagnosis

'Finding out Jill was dyspraxic was a help, at least now we could try to find the right provision for her.'

For some, diagnosis of a handicap or difficulty will be made at birth or during early infancy; this is especially true where the child has a genetic disorder or sensory impairment. Other difficulties or special educational needs may not be apparent (or even exist) until the child is older, perhaps even a teenager.

In a few cases diagnosis isn't made until well into adult life and perhaps only then because a family member is identified as having a particular difficulty. Yet even those undetected until adult life often feel a sense of relief when they finally realise why they struggled or experienced problems and finally have a name to pin to these.

'I was so glad when my child was diagnosed as dyspraxic. The school had told me there wasn't anything to worry about but I knew my child was experiencing greater difficulties than he should. He couldn't jump or hop; his handwriting was illegible; he struggled with laces; bumped into things. At least now I felt he’d get the help he needed instead of people thinking he was just clumsy and stupid.'

What problems might a child with special educational needs have?

Children with global delay, genetic conditions such as Down's Syndrome, sensory impairments, physical/medical problems and those with moderate to severe autism are likely to be identified in the pre-school years.

Others particularly those with mild autistic spectrum conditions, behavioural difficulties or specific learning difficulties may not be identified until well into their schooling.

Tell-tale signs of special educational needs

 Difficulties may occur with:

  • all school work
  • specific areas of school work such as reading, writing, numeracy, understanding or processing information
  • self-expression or expressing and understanding what others are saying
  • listening or paying attention
  • establishing relationships, making friends or relating to adults
  • behaving appropriately in or out of school
  • personal organisation
  • motor skills: may be impaired or slow
  • sensory or physical needs
  • a combination of any of the above.

Not all SEN are easy to spot; some youngsters develop coping strategies to mask their difficulties - they use common sense, quick-wittedness, intelligence and other virtues (or vices) to disguise the effects of an SEN.

We have come across cases where severe dyslexia has been diagnosed in mid A level when the adaptability finally ran out.

Bright but undiagnosed severe dyslexics have even made it to Oxbridge. Others may have, for example, a hearing loss that has not been identified and they may be considered naughty, a fidget, a daydreamer - symptoms of everyday childhood, but also ones that can conceal underlying special needs. Parents know their children well and are very often the first to spot their child's is struggling.

What proportion of children have special educational needs?

More than 20% of children are diagnosed as having a special educational need at some point.

Today it is hard to find a family not touched in some way by special needs. Why? Better recognition, detection and diagnosis of SEN on the one hand, coupled with medical advances and better neo-natal survival rates on the other.

For some children, having an SEN is a transitory phase. It may be that following suitable intervention the child will be 'cured'. At the other extreme some will have special educational needs throughout school and possibly into adult life.

The type, nature and severity of SEN vary but approximately 2 per cent of children have needs that require a statement (or, in Scotland, a record of need or co-ordinated support plan).The majority of children with a range of special needs, including many with statements, attend ordinary mainstream schools.

For a minority of children, particularly those requiring multi-disciplinary therapeutic or residential care, special schools or other specialist provision may be better able to cater for their needs.

It's not just children who are being diagnosed with SEN; we know of a number of parents who, on getting a diagnosis for their child, realise they too have a previously undetected difficulty.

What help is available for children with difficulties?

If your child is at school they are likely to be put on 'School Action', monitored and perhaps given an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with targets. Children who require help from an external source such as an occupational therapist are said to be on 'School Action Plus'.

A minority of children with greater needs, that cannot be met within existing resources, may be presented for a Statutory Assessment and Statement of SEN. The statementing process is under review but currently takes 6 months to complete. This involves detailed assessment of your child by an educational psychologist plus any other professionals, such as speech and language therapists, who may be involved with your child.

The road to ensuring your child gets the right help at the right time can be rocky and fraught. On this website we help you navigate this tricky journey, explain your rights, enable you to draw on the experiences and expertise of others, highlight good schools and different schooling options. 

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