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Various disabilities, their characteristics and special educational needs


Following, are characteristics of several disabilities. Importantly though, don’t forget that a learner with more than one disability must manage the effects simultaneously as each disability is not a separate and individual entity. Note also, that each disability can present with similar functional characteristics.

During observation, it can be very difficult separating one disability from another. For example, if someone is visually impaired and has difficulties reading this might result from a visual impairment, dyslexia or a learning difficulty based on a below average IQ.

Each disability may present with similar characteristics. For example, if a three year old begins to behave inappropriately having just moved from nursery into pre-school it may be as a result of the psychological impact of low vision and a change in environment or another disability.

One situation came to a head when those teaching a child had to manage the anger of a mother whose child had been severely bitten by a three year old. The three year old had been left unsupported in a dark cloak room when another child came and sat unannounced beside her. She immediately bit the new arrival on the arm.

Did her behaviour stem from an ineffective transition plan which didn’t adequately address her visual impairment? Was it due to her being unable to see in what to her may be perceived as a threatening environment? Was her fluctuating vision affecting her ability to see, thereby causing nervousness and stress? Was it causing tiredness and effecting confidence? Was a recent change in her learning environment, and the expectations of those delivering a new program causing frustration, insecurity or even fright?

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.

Signs of a visual impairment

Does your child or young person:

  • Keep blinking or rubbing his or her eyes?
  • Are his or her eyes watery, itchy and inflamed?

Does s/he:

  • Frown, squint or peer at work
  • Tilt his or her head or hold work at an odd angle or distance?
  • Close or cover one eye when looking at books or turn his or her head in order to follow the line across the page when reading?

Physically, does s/he:

  • Appear clumsy?
  • Bump into people and/or objects?
  • Show difficulty with throwing, kicking and catching?

Does s/he:

  • Find it difficult copying from the blackboard?
  • Confuse letters of similar appearance; for example, c,e,a,o?
  • Write in large letters and not on the line?
  • Press hard with the pencil?
  • Use a finger to follow work on a page?
  • Miss out words or lines when reading?


  • Complain that worksheets are too faint?
  • Complain that s/he can’t see the blackboard?
  • Have difficulty setting out sums?
  • Dislikes strong light or glare?

Also, does s/he,

  • Complain of frequent headaches?
  • Work slower than her or his peers?
  • Have a short attention span?

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Cognitive difficulty is used to describe those children and young people with an IQ below 70. Often, as a result, a child or young person’s all round development might be delayed. S/he may be emotionally or socially immature and have problems with fine and gross motor skills. Generally speaking though, s/he is a slow learner.

Case study

Following are characteristics of cognitive difficulties highlighted from a case study.

L, a 10 year old, presented with the following prior to being diagnosed with cognitive difficulties:

  • Slowness picking up new ideas
  • Slowness learning to read with a tendency to read parrot fashion
  • Slowness establishing number concepts

He also showed an inability to remember new skills without constant reinforcement and repetition.

At school

At school it was noted he had:

  • A short attention span
  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty adsorbing abstract ideas
  • Immature speech coupled with a limited vocabulary
  • A tendency to give one word answers
  • Difficulty remembering what he has seen or heard

At home

His mother pointed out that he,

  • Responded best when information was presented in a practical way
  • Had a tendency to mix with younger people rather than people of the same age

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Individuals with dyslexia may present with a spiky profile of learning. That is, an uneven pattern of strengths and weaknesses. There may be a significant difference between acquiring verbal and practical skills and the ability to develop literacy or numeracy skills.

Learning to read and write involves visual and auditory discrimination, memory and sequencing, practical awareness, hand eye co-ordination and fine motor skills. A child or young person with a weakness in one or more of these may experience considerable difficulties in becoming literate or numerate with other areas of learning affected too.

Case studies

Following are characteristic of dyslexia highlighted in case studies involving R and T, two 12 year old males.

At school

Characteristics displayed included:

  • Confusing similar letters and words when spoken or written
  • Mispronounce words; for example, pay school for day school
  • Difficulty copying accurately from the board
  • Difficulty reading accurately

The two children also had:

  • Difficulty remembering familiar words
  • Problems remembering facts learned by rote

They confused,

  • Letter or word order and reversed certain numbers
  • Had difficulty when tracking or focusing on written words, lost their place with R in particular omitting lines too

At home

Their parents noted R and T in differing degrees had,

  • Difficulty sequencing events; for example, days of the week
  • Difficulties when distinguishing direction; for example, left from right and in from out
  • Difficulties setting out homework
  • Poor coordination when catching, throwing or kicking

Both were also clumsy; for example, constantly tripping or falling.

When young

When younger their mothers noted they had difficulty dressing and undressing, with T in particular putting the wrong shoe on the wrong foot. They were both generally late developmentally when learning these skills.

They also had difficulty clapping rhythms and although enjoyed being read to had little interest in letters or words.

Looking back

Having been recently assessed with dyslexia and looking back, two 14 year olds said they,

  • Substituted words for words that sound the same; for example, lamppost for lampshade
  • Had difficulty with rhyming words; for example, cat, mat or sat
  • Found it difficult selecting the odd one out amongst words that sounded the same; for example, cat, mat, fat
  • Had difficulty with time sequence and getting things in chronological order; for example, first for last and now for later

One of the two characteristically:

  • Reversed the sequence of letters within words; for example, was for saw and out for not
  • Mixed up lower and higher case letters; for example, LeTTer

All four above displayed,

  • Erratic hand writing skills
  • Difficulty staying close to a margin when writing

Defining factors

Not all individuals with dyslexia present with all of the problems listed. Many will also have these difficulties but are not dyslexic. The defining factors are often:

  • The severity of the trait
  • How clearly the traits are observed
  • The length of time traits have been present
  • There is a family history of Dyslexia

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Those with ASDs have a developmental disorder which affects social and communication skills and impairs the ability to relate well to others. Children and young people with ASDs often show little curiosity or imagination and frequently seem uninterested or indifferent.

ASDs are on a continuum

Autistic Spectrum Disorders lie on a continuum where children and young people are affected to different degrees. Those with autism often have learning difficulties whilst those with Asperger Syndrome will often have a high IQ. There are approximately four times more males than females with ASDs.

Isolated areas of ability

In some cases those with ASDs will have isolated areas of ability. These areas of ability will often be considerably more advanced than the child’s or you person’s general level of development. Also, many may develop obsessions.

Four key areas characterise ASDs. They are,


There is likely to be a delay in processing information and problems with verbal and non-verbal communication. This might include incessant talking regardless of others, and a literal understanding of language.

Social interaction

With difficulties in social interaction there are likely to be difficulties in managing or structuring free time, a lack of awareness regarding respect, politeness or appropriately making and managing relationships.

Poor flexibility of thinking or imagination

Poor flexibility of thinking or imagination presents when the child or young person is not aware of what might occur if a plan doesn’t happen. S/he has what is termed an underdeveloped ‘theory of mind.’ That is, the individual has difficulty realising others may be thinking differently to him or herself. S/he may have difficulty empathising with others too and, in order to manage stress and anxiety, has a great need for predictability and order.

Sensory difficulties

Sensory difficulties present when an individual reacts disproportionately to sound, sight, touch, smell or taste. S/he may also have difficulty in managing fine and gross motor skills.

Case studies

To highlight characteristics of ASDs the following case studies have be used.

Using words

J, a 9 year old, characteristically:

  • Used limited and repetitive language along with pedantic speech
  • Talked obsessively about one topic: his collection of Lego building bricks

He further:

  • Echoed the speech of others rather than responding appropriately
  • Relied on situations rather than words for meaning
  • Interpreted speech in a very literal way

Generally speaking, his verbal skills disguised a lack of comprehension.

Behaviour and actions:

The second case study belongs to A, a 13 year old. He,

  • Displayed bizarre behaviour and mannerisms
  • Had poor eye contact
  • Often did not answer when spoken to
  • Was unable to empathise with others when they were upset or hurt
  • Played with objects in a ritualistic way
  • Preferred activities with a repetitive mechanical process

He also:

  • Lacked awareness of common dangers; for example, deep water at his local swimming pool or a glowing piece of wood that had fallen from a bonfire
  • Resisted any change in routine which could result in him displaying inappropriate behaviour

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Dual sensory impairment is a combination of both visual impairment and hearing impairment. It does not mean that the individual has no hearing or sight. In fact, the majority of dual impaired children or young people have some hearing and sight.

Dual sensory impairment occurs when the combination of both impairments intensifies the impact of both disabilities. The impact is not uniform and the educational needs of the child or young person must be delivered on an individual basis.

The dual impaired child or young person will find it difficult, if not impossible, to fully benefit from the support usually given to visual or hearing impaired children or young person. A dual impairment approach is therefore needed.

Case study

The following case study highlights the characteristic difficulties of a dual sensory impaired child. M, a 13 year old, had difficulties in developing communication skills along with mobility and orientation.

She often required:

  • Adapted or augmented forms of communication
  • Specialised learning programmes in mobility and orientation
  • Modifications to the built environment

Through requiring the integration of information received through other senses she needed individual activity based programmes differentiated to meet her specific needs.

Curriculum, strategies and specialist programmes

Individual need cannot be assumed or generalised. An individual needs led approach to education and development is required.

Based on assessment, an individual curriculum is required to include specific age appropriate intervention in:

  • Communication skills
  • Mobility and orientation
  • Social skills
  • Independent living skills

Awareness training in dual sensory impairment was necessary for all staff and peers coming into contact with M.

On-going staff training was also necessary to develop specialist knowledge and skills; this being particularly necessary to ensure that M always received accessible information.

The built environment

An environmental audit should be carried out to ensure that your child’s or young person’s individual needs are being met.


The communication needs of your child or young person will be highly individual. Communication may be necessary via several pathways. These might involve:

  • Voice
  • Objects of reference
  • Textured communication
  • Symbols
  • Pictures

Communication may also be necessary via:

  • Finger spelling or deaf-blind manual
  • Visual sign language such as British Sign Language (BSL) or hands on signing
  • Lip reading
  • Portable communication aids

Intervener and 1-1 support

An intervener is often necessary so that your child or young person is able to access the curriculum. Time is also needed for someone to modify and adapt learning resources.

An intervener and 1-1 support should attend meetings with staff delivering programmes to ensure that materials are suitable and prepared on time.

Coordinating support

Delivery needs coordinating to ensure that everyone involved is aware of individual need.

A list of specialists involved might include:

  • Qualified Teacher of the Visually Impaired, Qualified Teacher of the Hearing Impaired, Multi-Sensory Impairment Teacher
  • Physiotherapist, Occupational Therapist and Speech and Language Therapist
  • Specialist tutors covering mobility, touch typing, ICT and signing

Time will be needed for someone to set, monitor and deliver specialist programmes. The person delivering a specialist programme will need training. Programmes though should be devised and monitored by qualified people.

All of this needs coordinating so everyone involved is aware of the information presented by each specialist.

Someone to facilitate communication in the community might also be necessary. Ideally, the facilitator will be age appropriate and support the young person when, for example, accessing shops and socialising generally.

Specialist resources

A wide range of specialist resources may be required to include:

  • Braille, Moon and large print texts
  • Low vision aids to include CCTV and an audio tape recorder
  • Tactile or audible equipment, for example talking scales or tactile rulers
  • ICT with a magnification package, speech synthesizer and/or Braille display
  • Braille embossers, scanner and tongue switches to operate computers and induction loop systems

Social needs

Dual sensory impairment is isolating. The social needs of your child are therefore an important element regarding development.

Constant assessment

Constant consideration is required in the following areas:

  • Communication
  • Mobility
  • Environmental awareness
  • Social skills
  • Independent living skills

The acoustic environment

A suitable acoustic environment is always important. Sound has meaning. Small increases in background noise and reverberation will have a disproportionate effect on the amount of auditory information the hearing impaired child or young person can use.

For a hearing impaired child or young person with an additional visual impairment like M, the problems are even greater as she is less able to use visual clues to supplement auditory information.


Many dual impaired children like M need amplification to give them any chance of responding to sounds in the environment.

Hearing aids must be in good working order. Ear molds should be clean, batteries adequately charged, leads in good working order and appropriately connected.

Selective listening

A person with standard hearing learns to selectively listen within a noisy background. A hearing impaired person may have to develop this skill. Your child or young person may need training to recognise meaningful sounds, for example, when a door opens and someone walks into the room.

People with standard hearing learn about sources of sounds and their meaning by integrating vision with hearing. That is, they hear a sound and look for its source. Dual impaired children or young people with poor or confused vision may not make these connections incidentally and require specific learning to compensate.

The acoustic environment should therefore be altered to:

  • Enhance the quality of sound
  • Contribute to sound levels

The learning environment

Hearing aids do not cure hearing loss. They amplify all sounds in the environment and may present a mass of noise which the child or young person must make sense of. It is essential, therefore, to keep background noise to a minimum and to present the child or young person with as clear a signal as possible.

For children or young people with standard hearing, if speech is to be heard, must be at 5 – 10 decibels louder than background noise. For a hearing impaired learner the ratio needs to be 20 – 30 decibels greater. If this ratio is not achieved, research indicates that ‘listening’ is too difficult.

Consideration, therefore, must be given to ways in which background noise can be kept to a minimum.

Quiet area

Ideally, carpet tiles to floors and acoustic tiles to walls and ceilings, along with curtains to windows will be fitted throughout the whole learning environment. However, this may not be financially possible.

A way of reducing costs might, therefore, be to make one room acoustically suitable.


When making a quiet room or area try using:

  • An off-cut piece of carpet to cover the floor
  • A blanket or thick cardboard to cover the wall

The area must be suitably lit with controllable lighting that avoids glare.

If small, a room should only be used for one child or young person at a time. The aim being to provide optimum learning conditions to develop residual hearing.

Working in the quiet area should be a fun time when a dual impaired child or young person can explore various sounds and games which is more difficult to achieve in a busy and perhaps noisy classroom. It should be used regularly for short periods but never as a punishment space.

How might a non-specialist school or college address these issues?

If not already being done the following might be suggested:

  • External noises from a busy road, factories next door or even a flight path are not under a school’s or college’s control. However, classrooms can be allocated in a quieter part of the school or college to reduce the impact of external noise
  • Noise levels in communal areas like cloakrooms, dining areas, assembly rooms and corridors can be reduced. It should however be remembered that some noises are good location clues and are useful for orientation, mobility and generally raising environment awareness
  • If an environment becomes too noisy the removal of hearing aids is an option and especially if the noise becomes painful.
  • Don’t forget, that refusal to wear a hearing aid may be a justifiable response to unacceptable noise levels

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Some children or young people with physical disabilities will be easily identifiable whilst others are not. For example, children or young people with a condition which effects stamina may not be readily identified with a physical disability but their ability to participate fully in life may be significantly affected.


Some physical disabilities are connected to medical conditions requiring regular medication which needs to be taken during the school or college day.

Missed learning

Some physical conditions mean that a child or young person spends a lot of time out of school and this will inevitably impact on learning. Whilst home tuition can help, it is not the same or as effective as attending school.


If your child or young person has a physical disability or medical condition there are a number of things you may wish to pass on to school or college and particularly your child’s or young person’s class teachers. It should not be assumed that the necessary information will automatically reach those who need to know.

  • Is your child or young person on medication? If so, do the drugs affect a capacity to learn?
  • Is your child or young person likely to miss a lot of school? If so, does the school need to set work to be carried out at home?
  • How much is your child’s or young person’s physical disability or medical condition likely to limit participation in school or college life?
  • What can your child or young person do independently and when might s/he need support?
  • The skills and knowledge you have learned about your child or young person will be extremely useful to a teacher who doesn’t know your child or young person so well.

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Cerebral Palsy results from injury to the brain before or after birth. It is permanent but not progressive. It affects the child’s or young person’s ability to control movements. It can effect:

  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Mobility
  • Speech and communication
  • Manipulation
  • Cognition
  • Perception
  • Eating and drinking

Epilepsy is sometimes present too.

How well a child or young person succeeds in education or training will depend on the condition’s severity and whether other learning difficulties are present.

A child or young person may have to attend regular therapy; for example, physiotherapy or mobility training which will inevitably need to be built in to an already busy timetable.

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Learning difficulties are often a part of Down’s Syndrome. It is caused by additional chromosomes which alter the usual patterns of development in both the brain and body. The effects of the condition are very individual and can impact causing:

  • Visual Impairment
  • Hearing impairment
  • Multi-sensory impairment
  • Speech delay and ongoing difficulties in this area
  • Motor development when for example, sitting, crawling and walking


To provide accurate guidance for everyone working with your child or young person it is recommended that an assessment is carried out by someone experienced in assessing a child or young person with limited communication skills and learning difficulties.

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


The term Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties is used in relation to children or young people who have difficulties in controlling their behaviour and emotions. Their ability to learn is affected and they may also find it hard to operate socially.

Many children or young people will go through periods when they are anxious, moody or difficult. That is, in response to situations at home, school or college. If the problems are more intractable some may be very with-drawn, disruptive or disaffected.

The following points are designed to inform and support, not blame.


A child or young person may:

  • Under-react to situations and be overly quiet and passive
  • Have a very low self-image and appear to be unhappy
  • Suffer from depression
  • Have a deep feeling of insecurity

Aggressive children or young people

These children or young people can be a problem to others and themselves.

They may find it difficult to fit within socially accepted norms of behaviour making them difficult to control at home, school or college.

They may have:

  • Come to believe that their own needs are more important than anyone else’s
  • Become undisciplined which may have resulted through unsuitable social modelling


The term disaffected is used to describe older children or young people who reject school or college and see it as irrelevant to them.

A withdrawn child or young person

S/he may be:

  • Expressionless
  • Extremely unhappy
  • Over-sensitive to any criticism; for example, unable to tolerate teasing or personal remarks
  • Low in self-esteem
  • Overly anxious to conform
  • Lacking interest in work and under achieves
  • Displaying obsessive behaviour or has a totally absorbing interest, hobby or topic
  • The victim of bullying and may try to avoid going to school or college
  • A loner who is ignored by other children or young people rather than being actively disliked
  • Unable to form close relationships
  • Uneasy in social situations

An aggressive child or young person

S/he may be:

  • Noisy and demanding; for example, wants his or her own way and immediate attention
  • Verbally and physically aggressive, will hit out, rush, punch and kick, and could be a bully
  • Truant

S/he may,

  • Under achieve
  • Have poor concentration
  • Shout out in class and could be disruptive
  • Wander about and be disobedient
  • Use inappropriate language
  • Disregard rules

A disaffected child or young person

S/he may be:

  • Uninterested in school or college work
  • Unmotivated

S/he may,

  • Fail to complete homework regularly or on time
  • Ignore school or college rules; for example, where they relate to dress or appearance
  • Lack consideration for others
  • Truant

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Children or young people with ADD or ADHD lack concentration. Their short attention span often results in extremely disruptive behaviour at home, school or college.


Research shows that these conditions are caused by the frontal lobes of the brain being under-stimulated. Drugs, for example Ritalin, act as a stimulant and enable the child or young person to focus attention.

Research looking at the effects of fatty acids in a child’s and young person’s diet indicates that a change of diet can also alter behaviour in some children and young people.

Following are characteristics of children or young people with ADD and ADHD.

  • Poor concentration span
  • Difficulty in focusing on conventions or instructions
  • Seeming not to listen
  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Difficulty organising work
  • Often losing things
  • Tendency to day dream

Children or young people may also display:

  • Difficulty in staying on task and finishing work
  • Difficulty in keeping still
  • A need to move quickly and constantly on the go
  • A tendency to be restless even when asleep
  • Difficulty in considering the consequences of actions
  • Difficulty waiting and turn taking
  • A need for immediate rewards
  • Excessive movement
  • A need to frequently change an activity

They are often:

  • Impulsive
  • Talkative
  • Quick-tempered
  • Demanding


  • Intolerant
  • Impatient
  • Unpredictable
  • Easily frustrated

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.


Of course, being bilingual or multilingual is not a disability. However, having for example English as a second language can lead to the misdiagnosis of a disability with a knock on effect in education or training.

Linguistic diversity is the norm in many communities. Many children or young people are now exposed to a number of different languages on a daily basis.

The term bilingual does not give us an understanding of the degree by which the child or young person is proficient in more than one language.

There are children or young people who:

  • Function well in more than one language but are not necessarily completely fluent when speaking, reading or writing in more than one language
  • Have only a basic understanding of a second language and this perhaps applies to the majority of bilingual children and young people in the UK
  • Have parents born and educated in the UK who have English as a preferred language although one or more language is spoken in the family home

Knowledge and experience but from a different starting point

There are children or young people who have knowledge and experience in using English but start from a different point of understanding.

Inevitably, there are bilingual children or young people with special educational needs. These children or young people have specific requirements with regard to language along with the same rights as monolingual learners.

You might expect therefore, where the difficulty is severe and undermining performance, your child or young person will require special help in developing English language skills.

If your child or young person is not skilled enough in English this will inevitably impact on attainment targets in English. A low level of performance may therefore be taken as an indication of learning difficulties including, for example, cognitive difficulties.


A blurred understanding may have occurred if your child or young person:

  • Fails to grasp basic concepts within a subject
  • Under achieves in literacy


An assumption often made by many is that the bilingual child or young person suffers through having to work in two languages. Underachievement vis-à-vis the monolingual English speaking child or young person is thereby due to mental confusion.

However, others conversely argue that competence in one language enhances the development in another. This occurs through constant comparisons made by the child or young person in the ways both languages achieve meaning.

Also, maintaining both languages equally is in fact intellectually enriching and can positively affect performance.

Whilst there will be children or young people whose progress gives cause for concern, the issue is in fact separating difficulties in learning the language from learning difficulties. Perhaps, therefore, the real problem lies with inadequate assessment tools.


Be aware of two potential errors:

  • Diagnosing a learning difficulty when there isn’t one. Labelling the child or young person may have a detrimental effect by altering teaching methods or even placing the child or young person in an unsuitable school or college
  • Failing to diagnose a learning difficulty and not providing appropriate support


  • A full bilingual language assessment should be carried out to determine language proficiency
  • Assessment cannot be culturally free but every effort should be made to ensure that the assessment is as culturally fair as possible
  • Non-verbal tests should be used where possible
  • Consider carefully the use of assessment items which require verbal recognition

The first language of a child or young person should be seen as a valuable asset for supporting and developing learning.

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information, see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.

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