Too many special needs?

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When I was growing up the average person had never heard of ADHD, autism, Asperger's syndrome, bipolar disorder, attachment disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, development delay, specific learning difficulties, or any of the conditions which now seem to be endemic in our children.

It would be difficult to imagine that these conditions had been spawned by a generation, so they must therefore have existed to some extent in the children I grew up with, but without being diagnosed. These ‘special needs’ children were simply acknowledged as being a bit different by their friends and peer group, who accommodated their differences in their social interaction, and by parents and teachers, who gave extra help and disciplined as and when required.

Diagnosing children as having special needs is now so prolific that most classes in the UK have upwards of 30% of children labelled with additional needs. A disproportionately high number of children who come into care have special needs. But do all these children really have special needs? Possibly not. A recent report from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, said that thousands of pupils were being wrongly labelled as having special educational needs when all they required was better teaching and support. It was suggested that up to 25% of the 1.7m pupils in England with special needs would not be so labelled if schools focused more on teaching for all their children. This report was followed by a government ‘green paper’ from the Department for Education in which ministers stated that too many pupils in England's schools were being wrongly labelled as special needs and that many would benefit from pastoral care, although what form this would take was unclear.

But as foster carers and parents should we be too worried by the possibility of incorrect labelling? I believe we should. For while a ‘diagnosis’ can open doors to funding for extra help, as well as reassuring the carer or parent who may have been very worried about their child’s learning and behaviour, the label can have a negative effect, it can tolerate and excuse otherwise unacceptable behaviour, as well as placing a ‘glass ceiling’ on the child’s ability and potential to learn. Parents, carers, teachers and other professionals can easily rely on a child’s ‘condition’ as the single overriding characteristic of the child and responsible for all the child’s difficulties.

Many of the children I have fostered have been diagnosed with a special need and arrived with learning well behind their peers and behaviour that was often out of control. Without exception all these children improved dramatically, sometimes miraculously, as a result of nurturing their learning, managing their behaviour, and also often radically changing their diet from high sugar processed to fresh. I am not saying that all these children were diagnosed incorrectly or that the condition disappeared, but that it is important as carers and parents we deal holistically with the child and not bow to a diagnosis.

Cathy Glass (