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As a term, “special needs” categorizes individuals who have certain functional impairments who have been clinically determined to necessitate assistance in their everyday lives. The basis of conditions that may merit the diagnosis of special needs status may be medical, psychological or mental in origin. The  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  has specific guidelines that indicate the criteria that mandate a diagnosis.


There are various conditions that fall underneath the umbrella of categorization such as blindness, dyslexia, autism, cystic fibrosis and others. In certain circumstances, diagnosis may be given on the basis of primarily physical conditions such as a missing limb.

United States and United Kingdom Categorization

Within the United Kingdom, there are separate contexts that affect the particular categorization of the individual as needing special accommodations. In particular, the United Kingdom distinguishes between special needs in terms of the base clinical diagnosis and a strictly educational context. The specific categorization for those within the United Kingdom who have a condition that affects their educational needs is  Special Educational Needs (SEN) .

Statistics and Origin

In United States, statistical reports indicate that nearly 1/5th of all children under the age of 18 had a condition that necessitated special assistance in the year 2005. The specific statistics for minors requiring special health care needs in 2005 was 18.5 percent, equating to approximately 13.5 million children in total.

The term “special needs” was originally drawn from the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. The Adoption and Safe Families Act created the term out of legal necessity for the indication of foster care children that would require more involved attention in order to have their needs met than those without the same mental, medical or psychological complications.


Under most circumstances, special accommodation categorizations are made through the observation of a healthcare professional; however there has been some controversy over the determination of credibility in those who have been given the power to diagnose subjectively. Disagreements over the merits of certain conditions to indicate special classification have led to some conflict in determining which individuals should be given the most leverage in deciding which children necessitate special classification.

In spite of controversy, the  International Classification of Diseases  and Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have served as relatively stable guidelines for the symptoms and respective symptom intensities that should be taken as a sign of needing special consideration.


Within the strictly educational context, special needs children are those with conditions that necessitate an altered educational program in order to accommodate their medical or psychological conditions. Under some circumstances, a special education needs program may be referred to as an Individual Program Plan.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act was compelled to create the term due to the fact that children with conditions mandating special attention were observed to be more difficult to place for adoption; however, with patience, families given notice of said needs in advance have been shown to be able to provide a positive outlook for children who have them.

See also: Top 10 Cheap Online Special Education Degree Programs (Bachelor’s)

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