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“Special Needs” is like an umbrella sheltering and hiding a huge collection of diagnoses underneath.

December 7, 2010

I have recently been coaching some wonderful parents who have a child with ADHD and as a former teacher of many children with unique and different needs, I have been exploring with them how to handle the painful and often overwhelming feelings associated with dealing with the diagnosis that their child is different.

Children who are unique need your parenting approach to be individual, flexible and creative as well as consistent and clear because they have different needs to other children and this can be very stressful for you as a parent.

• What is unique and special?

“Special Needs” is like an umbrella sheltering and hiding a huge collection of diagnoses underneath. Children with “special” or “different” needs may have trouble paying attention, profound mental retardation or be gifted, or they may have a food allergy be terminally ill or have a stammer. The vastness of the term can be confusing and bewildering.

“Special needs” is often commonly defined by what your child can’t do – by milestones unmet, foods banned, activities avoided and experiences denied. These minuses can hit you as a family really hard and may make “special needs” seem like a tragic designation or a millstone around everyone’s neck.

But I believe that a label should not limit a child’s potential and I see every child as a way to find a new opportunity to explore their potential in a new or different way that hasn’t yet been tried.

I have worked and trained with Dr Richard Bandler – the co-creator and founder of NLP when I was training to become an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer. He is an extraordinary man who challenges accepted ways of doing things and stereotyped labels as he is curious and fascinated by different and new ways to explore the way the brain works and how it can be improved and fine-tuned to enable everyone to reach their true potential.

After the initial shock of discovering your child is unique and special, gently and slowly change your focus from one of despair to gently and gradually starting to see it as an opportunity to learn how to help you and your child to explore and discover more about themselves.

Giving a child a label can limit them.

Some parents will always focus on the difficulties and grieve their child’s lost potential compared to others, but I challenge you to see beyond the diagnosis – to become a family who sees your child’s challenges as making their triumphs even sweeter and your child’s apparent “weaknesses” always being balanced by their amazing strengths.

• Dealing with the diagnosis that your child is different

The diagnosis is useful for getting the support or services your child needs and it is helpful in setting appropriate goals and gaining understanding that your child has a unique talent or unique need but I think it is worth pointing out that the diagnosis may come as shock or a relief to you and that whatever your reaction it is perfectly normal – some of you will have known from an early stage that your child was different, but for others of you it may be years before you guessed it and it may have taken you many visits to professionals to receive a clear diagnosis and for you to accept the new situation.

I remember when I was teaching a Reception Class when a little boy arrived on the first morning into the classroom and just ran round and round, then he started eating the sand and rocking on his seat sucking his thumb looking bewildered and scared. His Mum hadn’t wanted to bring him to the two “getting to meet the teacher” afternoons as she was frightened and scared herself about what was happening to her son but we helped the family get some professional help, support and a clear diagnosis of autism.

When I bumped into the little boy’s Dad one lunchtime in the local butcher’s he looked so relieved, relaxed and optimistic I was pleased we had helped the family come to terms with something that was overwhelming and frightening. They were moving forward with their lives, facing the challenges and anxieties and getting the help and support they all needed.

Here are some tips that you may find useful in the weeks and months ahead after receiving the news of a diagnosis for the first time:

  • Give yourself time to come to terms and to develop an understanding of what this diagnosis means for you, your child and your family
  • Avoid making any rash or major decisions in the weeks following the diagnosis.
  • If you need to, do seek another appointment with the professional who gave you the diagnosis so you can ask more questions.
  • Before any consultations decide what you want from the meeting and jot down any questions you have – it’s very easy to forget them during a meeting. Don’t forget to make a note of the answers. If you can’t go to the meetings together do take a friend or relative if you want support and another pair of ears to help you remember what was said.
  • The diagnosis may affect each of you as parents differently – while one of you may be able to accept the diagnosis, the other may feel that it is not correct and continue searching for alternative explanations for your child’s difficulty – that’s why it’s important to give yourself time and discuss all the decisions made about your child.
  • Be aware that there will be mixed reactions from your family and friends to the news of the diagnosis- some are very supportive or some are very hurtful and distressing.
  • Educate yourself about the condition that is affecting your child – use all the sources of information available to you – library, Internet, other parents, organisations – knowledge is power.
  • Do seek a second opinion on the diagnosis if you feel the diagnosis you have received is flawed.
  • Get to know the professionals in your area – Who are they? Where are they based? Do they work as a team or individually? – try to get to know the team that is dealing with your child and build a relationship with them.
  • Begin to keep notes of all your meetings with the professionals you are working with and if a professional is compiling a report on your child ask for a copy to keep with your records

Many parents I’ve worked with find it very helpful and supportive to be involved with the organisation or support group that represent children and families with similar special needs.

I know making the initial contact can be a very big and frightening step but remember these groups can be a source of fantastic ongoing help and support. When you are ready, do make contact. You are not alone – and it helps to know that.

• How A Diagnosis Affects You

The reaction to hearing a diagnosis for the first time will be individual to you and how you react will depend on a number of factors such as:

• the severity of the diagnosis
• nature of diagnosis and the prognosis for your child
• your child’s age
• presence of other associated disabilities
• your pervious experiences and knowledge of the condition diagnosed
• your child’s temperament
• your own temperament
• the amount of help available
• how you were told about the diagnosis

It’s perfectly normal to grieve after hearing a diagnosis and most parents experience a reaction similar to a feeling of bereavement – because while of course, you love your child whether they have special needs or not, it is important to acknowledge that you have suffered the loss of a child who may have followed a customary path of development.

Of course, the presence of a child with special needs in your family alters your family relationships and the way it may now function, including the closeness of parents and other siblings. However, remember these changes may be positive as well as negative. It is down to your positive attitude and mindset about how you are going to handle this challenge.

That’s why I am passionate about using strategies and techniques that I’ve learnt in my 22 years as a teacher and from my years of studying NLP to help you move forward in your lives creating the happy, harmonious and fulfilling relationships and experiences that you all deserve.

If you’d like to find out more about positive ways to raise children with unique and special needs there is far more detail and resources in Chapter 14 of my book “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” which covers Dyslexia, ADD, Dyspraxia, Asperger’s Sydrome, and the gifted and talented.

I am always happy to help so feel free to give me a call if you’d like some advice.

Download your copy of Sue’s Ebook
How to give your kids the gift of self-esteem by clicking here

About the author

Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the  famous black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.

Join me on these networks

Sue Atkins the Parenting Expert
T: + 44 1342 833355   M: 07740 622769

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Surrey RH7 6LF

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2010 2:22 pm

    As the mom of 4…the truth is – all of my kids have special needs and extraordinary gifts 😉

    However…the difference is that they can all function in a mainstream setting, with ‘typical’ people and in ‘expected’ ways — except for one of them. My son.

    My 15 year old son has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome from choices his birthmother made as well as associated ADHD, Attachment Disorder, Growth Retardation and more.

    A label was absolutely helpful. Why? Because there are so many issues and concerns that make you question your sanity, your parenting skills, your own emotions and when you are equipped and educated about WHY he does what he does…it helps you cope wiht it in a great ‘unemotional’ kind of way.

    I used to take his behaviors very personally.
    I used to feel that he was ‘pushing my buttons’
    I used to even SAY to him ‘you know better than that’ – why haven’t you learned, etc…

    and the truth is – he cannot learn consequences, he doesn’t know better and he has zero understanding of social cues and ‘appropriate’

    So – I embrace professionals (who still only have a textbook knowledge, not the 1-1 that I have daily.

    I educate his teachers and my family.

    I embrace his gifts, his strengths and HIM while also helping him (see above) — fit into mainstream, function as ‘normal’ as possible and keep the family safe, happy and healthy.

    It’s a journey, for sure. Thanks for your insight Sue!

    Carrie Wilkerson

    • December 10, 2010 10:37 am

      Thank you Carrie for talking the time to share your thoughts with other parents who may find themselves in a similiar place.

      I have not come across many parents living with a child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome so I wanted to help raise awareness of it and thank you for sharing.

      I am a great believer in finding support from other parents in a similar position as it helps take away the isolation, feelings of helplessness and overwhelm. Where do you get that support in the US ?

      Here in the UK there is a support group called The National Organisation on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – UK
      whose aim is to protect children, support families, and educate the public about FASD.

      It has a Helpline – 08700 333 700 five days a week Mon to Fri 10am-6pm to give advise, support and information to all callers concerned about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

      And a support group meetings for individuals affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, their families, carers and health professionals as well as playgroups for children supervised by professional carers with CRB checks.

      Contact Information
      HELPLINE 08700 333 700
      165 Beaufort Park
      NW11 6DA


      Tel: 0208 458 5951

  2. January 11, 2011 11:07 pm

    Thankyou for such a positive, helpful post my son has a lot of issuesxand sometime you get sucked into the downside of having special needs but this brings it back unto perspective and he is unique and I’m so proud of him x

    • January 12, 2011 7:46 pm

      Oh Rachel I’m so glad you shared how proud you are of him. How old is your son?

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