Life in a Special-Needs World

Children with special needs are more integrated into our communities than ever before. In an exclusive new survey, Parents reveals how families of all abilities are navigating this new terrain.
Special Needs

There's been a massive sea change in how we view children who are not developing as expected, or, in other words, children who have special needs. From growing numbers of special-needs PTAs, playgrounds, camps, and toys to Pinterest's "Special Needs Blogs" board (3,500 pins and counting) to plotlines of the TV show Parenthood, physical, mental, and behavioral conditions that were once hidden away in specialized schools and doctors' offices are now woven into mainstream society in ways we haven't seen before. The prevalence of parent-reported childhood developmental disabilities jumped 17 percent between 1997 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This works out to nearly 10 million children. The most recent data show that one in 88 kids has a diagnosis of autism.

For the April 2014 issue of Parents, we created a 20-page section devoted to the special-needs world that we all inhabit, whether or not we have a diagnosis. Teaming up with Quester, a research company in Des Moines, we surveyed nearly 500 moms of children ages 3 to 12, roughly divided between those whose kids have special needs and those whose kids are typically developing. To define just which diagnoses fall into that first group, we looked to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, the federal special education law that ensures public schools serve children with disabilities. We settled on conditions that require intervention and accommodations at school -- including ADHD; autism spectrum disorder; developmental delays and disabilities such as Down syndrome; epilepsy; hearing and vision impairment; behavioral/conduct disorders; arthritis and joint problems; and physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy.

Some of the survey's most enlightening findings:

  • Only about 15 percent of all the moms surveyed believe children should be separated from their peers in school based on a diagnosis.
  • One in four moms of typically developing kids wonder whether their child needs to be evaluated because of a potential developmental disorder.
  • Only 17 percent of moms of kids with special needs say children's conditions are overdiagnosed today. The number jumps to 30 percent among moms of typically developing kids.
  • 89 percent of moms of kids with special needs say their children seem pleased with their social network. Meanwhile, 79 percent of moms of typically developing kids gave the same response.
  • 73 percent of moms whose kids have special needs have talked to their children about people with special needs; 81 percent of moms of typically developing kids have had that discussion.
  • 32 percent of moms whose kids have special needs will acknowledge another child's special needs with that child's parents, compared to 22 percent of moms of typically developing kids.

Moms were very candid in their responses. This is what mothers of children who have special needs want other moms to know:

  • "I may look tough, but know that I'm as fragile as my child. I just don't have the option to show it."
  • "Please don't tell me to just relax. There is always something to be done: doctor appointments, therapy appointments, insurance people to talk to, papers to be filled out, extra encouragement and praise and attention to be given. It's exhausting."
  • "We often can't do activities other people with kids the same age do, [but] I still relish the adult friendships [with moms whose kids don't have special needs]."
  • "Be more sensitive when bragging about [your] typically developing kids. Even though we are blessed and thankful for our kiddos, [we also] feel sadness for not being able to experience certain things that other people might take for granted."

Cerebral Palsy: Challenges and Triumphs
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