Educating a child with special needs is an enormous topic — worthy of several books — but we’ll cover the basics here today.
The Most Important Part of Special Education
By far, without any question, is realizing there’s a problem and defining the problem. If a child makes it to kindergarten without anyone noticing anything dramatically wrong, it’s easy to assume the problem is something minor. (Sometimes, it actually is — we know of at least one child that was diagnosed with profound ADHD when his actual problem was nearsightedness; he wandered around the classroom not because he couldn’t focus, but because he was trying to get a better view of the activities.)
Further complicating the problem is the fact that many special-needs diagnoses are interrelated, or very similar in symptoms. For example, ADHD is strongly correlated with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and several similar diseases — but it’s not associated with the autism spectrum even though it shares far more symptoms in common with mild autism than it does with any of the dys- conditions. A child that doesn’t like to talk might be autistic, or they might have apraxia, or social anxiety disorder, or they might have a bad stutter… or they might be deaf and unable to hear you when you try to provoke a conversation. The point here is that special educators, no matter how skilled, cannot help a child if they’re using tools and techniques designed for the wrong disorder.
Special Needs is Not ‘Remedial.’
The next thing to remember is that there is a large difference between ‘special needs’ and ‘poor scholastic performance.’ Remedial education and special needs education have some overlap, but they are two different subjects — because ‘special needs’ can include scholastic affective disorders like dyslexia, but can just as easily include educating a brilliant but deaf student or a student with Asperger’s Syndrome that is an amazing mathematician and geographical wizard, but has trouble understanding the basics of social play and turn-taking. A good special needs program understands how to deal with gifted children — because being gifted is a special need — as well as those that need remedial assistance. Recognizing strengths has to be part and parcel of every special child’s education.