Special needs: a guide

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Carolyn O'Grady looks at some of the most common conditions and gives details of useful organisations.

In its Green Paper, Excellence for all Children: Meeting Special Educational Needs (DFEE 1997), the Government made it clear that pupils with special needs should be taught in mainstream schools wherever possible, and in December 1999, it strengthened its commitment by announcing plans to introduce a Disability in Education Bill in the current session of Parliament.

Most primary teachers will probably already have several children with special needs in their classes, but this number is set to rise and there will be more pressure on schools to identify and meet the needs of such children. Some will have needs that have already been identified. Others will have undiagnosed disabilities or difficulties that emerge while the child is at school.

The following is a list of special needs that primary teachers are likely to meet. It indicates sources of help, but the first port of call should always be the school's special educational needs co-ordinator.

Care has to be taken not to label children, not least because every child's needs will be unique. Moreover, there is a large overlap between different conditions. For example, children with dyspraxia may also be dyslexic and many children have complex difficulties that defy categorisation. However, an understanding of the kind of problems particular children are experiencing can be helpful if it is used to gear resources, teaching methods and support.


Autism used to be associated only with very disturbed children. Now it tends to be seen as a range of conditions rather than a single one. The National Autistic Society estimates that 91 people in every 10,000 have an autistic spectrum disorder in the UK. The exact causes are not known, but research indicates that genetic factors are important.

The condition varies considerably from person to person, but what they have in common is difficulties with communicating and relating to others. Social skills, imaginative and creative skills, and language development are affected. Children may demonstrate repetitive behaviour patterns, resistance to change and, perhaps, challenging behaviour. Because their behaviour can appear odd they are vulnerable to bullying.

Asperger Syndrome is a form of autism, but people affected tend to have average or above-average intelligence and generally havefewer language difficulties.

* Guidance on identifying and helping autistic spectrum disorder children can be obtained from The National Autistic Society, 393 City Road, London EC1V 1NG. The society runs a helpline on 0870 600 8585, open from 10am till 4pm weekdays. Their website is at www.oneworld.orgautism_uk EMOTIONAL AND BEHAVIOURAL DIFFICULTIES, CHALLENGING BEHAVIOUR, ADHD

The roots of EBD are complex and include family disadvantage or breakdown and poor parenting skills. Sometimes they are related to severe neglect andor physical or sexual abuse.

Often EBD can be related toother special needs. Children with dyslexia, for example, sometimes vent feelings of failure in disruptive actions or become withdrawn. If a child's behaviour suddenly deteriorates, it may be because there is a crisis at home, a death or divorce, or the child may be being bullied.

Disruptive or withdrawn behaviour may be also be due to specific conditions, for example autism or attention deficithyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is estimated that around one per cent of children in the UK suffer from this, which research by the Medical Research Council suggests is an inherited neuro-biological condition. Found predominantly in males, it affects the parts of the brain involved in self-control and concentration. However, many argue that it often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

The primary symptoms of ADHD are problems with attention and compulsive, hyperactive behaviour. It affects all aspects of their life, so that such children are often very unpopular and under-achieve. Not surprisingly they frequently suffer from low self-esteem and depression. ADHD can overlap with other conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and speech and language disorders. Treatment can include medication, counselling, behaviour therapy and educational support.

ADHD can also present itself without the hyperactivity. Such children tend to be withdrawn, have learning difficulties rather than behaviour difficulties and have problems concentrating.

* Many education authorities have Behavioural Support Units and some have support groups for teachers with ADHD pupils. East Sussex and Hampshire LEAs publish guidance notes for all teachers. For East Sussex's, send a cheque for pound;14 payable to IPS to International Psychology Services, 17 Old High Street, Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex BN6 9TT (Tel: 01273 832181).

* For Hampshire's, contact ADD Information Services, Foster House, Maxwell Road, Borehamwood, Herts WD6 1HX. Tel: 020 8905 2013. Information about thecondition and details of local self-help groups can be found at: www.webtv.co.ukaddnet.htm


A recent study of offenders in London prisons found that 52 per cent of a random sample of 150 prisoners suffered from dyslexia, in contrast to only 10 to 14 per cent of the total UK population. These figures highlight the strong link between dyslexia, failure at school, and crime, and also the apparent failure of schools to identify and support children with the condition.

Dyslexia is defined by the Dyslexia Institute as "a specific learning difficulty that hinders the learning of literacy skills". A problem with managing verbal codes in memory, it is neurologically based and tends to run in families. Mathematics and musical notation can also be affected. Three times as many boys as girls are dyslexic.

A dyslexic child aged between seven and 11 may put figures or letters the wrong way round; read a word then fail to recognise it further down the page; spell words several different ways and have a shortconcentration span.

He or she may also confuse left and right; answer questions well orally but have difficulty writing the answer; be unusually clumsy; and have trouble with sounds in words, for example rhymes. Dyslexia can be helped by educational support andor specialist teaching.

* The Dyslexia Institute (133Gresham Road, Staines, Middlesex TW18 2AJ) is concerned with training and teaching, but also provides information and resources. Tel: 01784 463851;website: www.dyslexia-inst.org.uk * The British Dyslexia Association, (98 London Road, Reading RG1 5AU) is an umbrella organisation for local associations. Tel: 0118 966 8271.

* The Dyscovery Centre (12 Cathedral Road, Cardiff CF11 9LJ) is a private multi-disciplinary centre offering advice, assessment, treatments and training for professionals in dyspraxia, dyslexia and associated learning difficulties. Tel 01222 222011.


Even at the age of eight he can't tie his shoelaces; he draws rather like a child of three; he has difficulty dressing and doesn't relate easily to other children. His handwriting is barely legible and he finds construction toys difficult to assemble. Not all children with the condition will show all these symptoms and some will show others.

Dyspraxia is defined by the Dyspraxia Foundation as "an impairment or immaturity of the organisation of movement". Fine motor skills (holding a pen) andor gross motor skills (playing football) may be affected. Associated with it may be problems of language, perception and thought. It is estimated that up to 10 per cent of the population experience the condition to one degree or another and it is four times more prevalent in boys than girls. Children with dyspraxia are of normal intelligence.

Dyspraxia is sometimes referred to as Development Co-ordination Disorder (DCD), which is an umbrella term including children with mechanical problems, for example lax ligaments. There is a large overlap with speech and language disorders and dyslexia.

* The Dyspraxia Foundation, 8 West Alley, Hitchin, Herts SG5 1EG. Helpline: 01462 454986.Website: www.emmbrook.demon.co.ukdyspraxhomepage.htm * Dyscovery Centre (see Dyslexia).


It is estimated that around 840 children are born every year in the UK with a permanent, significant hearing loss, and every year around a further one million children under the age of eight experience temporary deafness caused by glue ear. Glue ear (in which thick fluid collects behind the eardrum ) is common and treatable but can significantly affect a child's educational progress, if undetected for any length of time. The warning signs for glue ear andor undetected hearing loss attributable to other causes are catarrh; a constantrunny nose and noisy breathing through the mouth; erratic behaviour; watching for the response of others as you give instructions and watching the teacher over-intently. Other signs include a lot of "pardons?"; failure to follow instructions, and surprisingly slow progress with reading and pronunciation.

Hearing impairment can affect language development, speech and literacy to varying degrees. Seek advice on where to position affected children; useful visual material; the way you talk in class; cutting out background noise; and the use of radio aid equipment.

* LEAs have advisory services for hearing impaired children.

Contact Elizabeth Andrews, the Educational Policy Officer, Royal National Institute for Deaf People, 1923 Featherstone Street, London EC1Y 8SL. Tel: 020 7296 8000.

* The National Deaf Children's Society, 15 Dufferin St, London EC1Y 8UR Helpline: 020 7250 0123 10am-5pm weekdays.

* Forest Bookshop (8 St John Street, Coleford, Glos GL16 8AR) specialises in books about the deaf. Tel: 01594 833858.

* Hearing Concern is currently developing a resources pack for primary schools. Tel: 020 8743 1110.


The spectrum of physical disabilities is extremely wide. It includes difficulties which require extensive modification of resources, equipment and the school premises; deteriorating conditions and conditions which might require the teacher to have some medical understanding, for example cystic fibrosis or epilepsy. These children are usually, but not always, identified before primary school, but there will be others who contract serious illnesses, have accidents or develop conditions such as asthma after they start school. Each child will have different needs.

* Seek advice from the local authority's advisory team. There are a large number of voluntary organisations which offer advice and support to the teacher.


These are sometimes called the "invisible disability" because they are the easiest to miss. Characteristics and the degree of severity vary widely. Some conditions are relatively minor and temporary. Glue ear can lead to language difficulties which often resolve themselves when it is treated.

Up to 10 per cent of school-age children are estimated to have some degree of difficulty with speech and language and about two in 1,000 have severe, long-term difficulties. Problems can be expressive (for example they may not speak clearly enough to be understood) andor receptive (they may not be able to follow simple instructions).

Such children may look round for visual clues or to their peers for information, or go off on the wrong tack in conversation. Delay in speaking and listening skills, lack of concentration, difficulty with rhyming and word games, short-term memory difficulties and problems with co-ordination may also be apparent. Teachers should also look out for inability to make eye contact and poor social skills.

There is a large overlap with dyspraxia and dyslexia. It has been shown that many children can overcome some, if not all, their difficulties if help is offered at an early age. Without such help they may go on to develop educational, social andor emotional and behavioural problems.

* Afasic is a charity that represents children and young adults with communication impairment, working for their inclusion in society and supporting their parents and carers. Afasic, 69-85 Old Street, London EC1V 9HX. Helpline: 08453 555577 (10am-4pm, Mon-Thurs). Website: www.afasic.org.uk

* Ican is an educational charity for children with speech and language difficulties. It produces information packs and runs training courses for teachers. Ican, 4 Dyer's Buildings, Holborn, London EC1N 2QP; e-mail ican@ican.btinternet.com

* Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists can supply the name of local therapists. RCSLT, 2 White Hart Yard, London SE1 1NX. Tel: 020 7378 1200. Website: www.rcslt.org


Visual impairment refers to people who are either totally blind or partially sighted. There are more than 21,000 children under 15 with a seeing disability, about two in every 1,000. Over half have other disabilities as well.

Visual impairment has usually been diagnosed by the time children reach primary school, but some slip through the net, or their sight deteriorates after they start school. Peering, a tendency to hunch over work and poor handwriting might indicate that the child should have his or her sight tested.

The key word when working with visually impaired children, says the Royal National Institute for the Blind, is independence. Treat them as you would any other child. But you can help with, for example, positioning and lighting.

* LEA sensory impairment teams include experts on visual impairment.

* The Royal National Institute for the Blind offers offers several support services to teachers. For the Inclusive Education Project, tel: 01203 369500. For the curriculum information service, call Suzy MacDonald on 01905 357635. The general helpline is on 0345 669999. RNIB, 224 Great Portland Street, London W1N 6AA. Website: www.rnib.org.uk


SEMERC, the special needs publisher, has launched an information service offering specialist help to all concerned with special needs. This includes an individual assessment service comprising educational psychology assessments, court reports, second opinions and ICT provision to meet particular needs. Consultancy and advisory support includes an audit of a school's ICT and special needs requirements, policy development and planning as well as in-school support and advice. SEMERC's website is www.semerc.com and its e-mail helpline is sis@granadamedia.com.

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