The Basic Types of Special Needs: A Guide to Special Education

The first time many people come across different types of special needs is during teacher certification courses.

If this is the first time that you have spent time with special needs education, you may be wondering what the different terms mean and how they differ from each other.

The Basic Types of Special Needs: A Guide to Special Education

It can be overwhelming to sift through all the information available, even if you are wanting to begin a career in teaching.

But what if you are a concerned parent wanting to learn more about your child’s diagnosis?

We have put together this quick guide to cover the basics of what you need to know about the different types of special educational needs.

Keep reading to find out what the term means, and the eleven broad categories of special educational needs.

What Are Special Educational Needs?

The term ‘special needs’ covers all the 13 types that are identified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA defines each of these special needs as a protected class which means that people with any of the specified diagnoses are protected from discrimination.

For children, this means that schools are legally required to make accommodations for children with any of the following diagnoses:

  • Hearing impairment
  • Deafness
  • Deaf/blindness
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Language or speech impairment
  • Visual impairment (this goes as far as blindness)
  • Other health impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Autism
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Specific learning disability

A professional diagnosis of any one of these conditions is enough to trigger a qualification for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

An IEP allows you, as a student, to get special services. These services can be supplied in a public school, or even in a home school setting.

There are a number of fairly common conditions that have not made it to this list from the IDEA. ADHD, for example, is not on the list.

ADHD, and other missing conditions, could make learning very difficult and so would qualify as a special educational need.

In these instances, the student would need to obtain a 504 Plan instead of an IEP to get the accommodations that they are entitled to.

Below we have listed the most common special needs.

We do not go through the specifics of an IEP or a 504 Plan as these are individual and tailored to the needs of each individual child.


Autism Spectrum Disorder covers a lot of different communication, behavioral, emotional, and social difficulties that vary in severity.

There is no definitive cause of autism, so there can be a litany of other symptoms attributed to this condition.

However, the current consensus is that autism stems from a range of factors that all culminate in developmental disorders of varying severity.

Children who have been diagnosed with autism will likely have trouble interacting ‘normally’ with their peers, be unable to healthily regulate emotions or impulses, will not cope with changes, and cannot handle sensory under load or overload.

Children with autism are usually diagnosed in early elementary school or preschool.

That said, the earlier you can get diagnosed and seek professional interventions, the better.


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in children.

The CDC estimates that 9% of children in America have ADHD today.

ADHD manifests in different ways, often leading to a number of different symptoms.

The most common are difficulty focusing, poor impulse control, poor time management, limited working memory, and hyperactivity.

As with autism, there is no defined or single cause of ADHD, and is thought to be a result of a combination of different factors.

Emotional Or Mental Illness

Any mental illness will have a negative effect on your ability to learn, and children are no different.

Emotional or mental illnesses include a lot of different disorders, so many that it is difficult to understand them all.

However, it is a good idea to have a little awareness of the most common.

These are:

  • Bipolar
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Eating disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

A student may have any of the above conditions and not need any additional support or have special educational needs.

Keep in mind that a student needs to have their education negatively impacted by their condition in order to qualify for special education.

These may be horrendous fears associated with school, significant difficulties in socializing or being around other people for extended periods of time, or that learning is made very difficult as a direct result of their condition.

It does not mean that learning is difficult because of low intelligence.

Intellectual Disability

Intellectual Disability

The term intellectual disability is an all-encompassing term that has no set definition.

It is given to anyone with a condition or disorder that has a severe impact on their cognitive capabilities.

In general, you can diagnose a child with an intellectual disability if they have an estimated IQ of less than 70.

Such a low IQ often means that there are troubles maintaining a healthy self-care and hygiene regime, social interactions, or even something as worrying as staying safe.

The two most common conditions that fall under the realm of intellectual disabilities are Fragile X Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome.

Both of these syndromes are caused by abnormal chromosomal functioning.

Specific Learning Difficulties

Children with specific learning disabilities are very common as up to 5% of all children are affected, with 38% of children with special needs having a specific learning disability.

Many learning disabilities stem from genetic variation and usually stay with people into adulthood.

The effect of specific learning disabilities on education is typically categorized into three areas: difficulties with writing, reading, and mathematics.

When talking about specific learning difficulties, it is important to remember that, like developmental disabilities, catching disorders early and engaging with interventions at a young age will have a positive impact.

Multiple Disabilities Or Conditions

Children with multiple disabilities are seriously affected by a complex mixture of sensory, cognitive, and medical troubles.

Someone with multiple disabilities will have at least two types of special needs.

However, a student with ADHD and a learning disability, for example, would generally have their education tailored by whichever condition had the most impact on their ability to learn.

Because of the severity of some conditions, it is not uncommon for children with multiple disabilities to be reliant on technology.

This can include a wheelchair, a device to enable communication, or a device that allows them to point and identify objects.

Orthopedic Impairment

A child with an orthopedic impairment can be very visibly different from other children.

It is not uncommon for children with an orthopedic impairment to use a wheelchair, have hypermobility issues, or have problems maintaining muscle tone.

One example of an orthopedic impairment is cerebral palsy.

Other Health Impairments

Other Health Impairments (OHI) is one of the broadest definitions used in the context of educational special needs.

Because this definition is so broad, it is difficult to get an IEP secured on just these grounds.

OHI is the term given to any child who has a health condition that has a negative impact on their educational capabilities, and also limits their alertness or strength while reducing their vitality.

Many medical concerns or disorders fall under this category.

Some issues that could trigger an OHI designation are more acute, like chronic diseases such as asthma, anemia, or diabetes, and can also cover some cancers.

A child who has ADHD so severe that they cannot remain focused or alert for long enough could also qualify.

Communication Or Sensory Disabilities

The communication or sensory disability definition covers all children with blindness, deafness, speech impediments, hearing and eyesight impairments, and some other related conditions.

Sensory and communication impairments, no matter how severe, can significantly impact a child’s ability to learn.

This means that low levels of sensory or communication issues can be enough to warrant accommodations to suit their educational needs.

These accommodations are not always based on technology and can cover large print or braille books, a sign language interpreter, or microphones for teaching staff to wear.

Traumatic Brain Injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is damage caused to the brain as a result of an external blow, jolt, or puncture.

Even the smallest of traumas can have a significant and long-term impact on a child’s educational needs due to the inherently delicate nature of the human brain.

A child who has a TBI can have a number of different symptoms depending on which regions of the brain are affected.

Symptoms such as seizures, emotional issues, speech impediments, and coordination issues are among the most common.

Gifted Students

This category of student can be easily overlooked in the context of education accommodations, but technically a gifted and talented student also has special educational needs.

A student who tests as being gifted and talented is not just bright, they are academically so far ahead of their peers that they need alterations in order to nurture their full potential.

A gifted student who does not have accommodations made can feel bored in lessons, often resulting in them acting out or dropping out of school altogether due to frustration.

Final Thoughts

This list of conditions that may require special education needs is not exhaustive.

Remember – every child should be examined on a case by case basis to find the best accommodations for them.

If you feel like your child has special needs, do not hesitate to communicate this with the school.

Keep in mind that many conditions that would impact a child’s ability to learn can be better controlled with early intervention.

Helena Waters