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Working in Special Needs

Updated on September 9, 2013

Working with people who have special needs can be very difficult; whether youre working with children or adults, it requires care and patience, as well as a range of special skills and training. For those with the dedication, however, it can be incredibly rewarding.

Whether you come to special needs work because of your own experiences or simply through the desire to make a real difference, there are a wide range of careers that can provide a kind of real job satisfaction thats quite rare.

What Are Special Needs?

There are a range of disabilities that fall within the definition of "special needs". For a child in the UK, the government lists the following examples of issues which affect the child's ability to learn:

  • behavioural/social (eg difficulty making friends)
  • reading and writing (eg dyslexia)
  • understanding things
  • concentrating (eg Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • physical needs or impairments

Autism, ADHD, Tourette's Syndrome, hearing impairment and visual impairment, speech, language or other communication difficulties, cerebral palsy and many, many more issues could require special care, and each different case requires different skills, approaches and training.

Interacting with Special Needs Individuals

The first thing to remember is that they are all unique individuals, and you can't treat them all the same way. Some will respond better to you if you make physical contact with them , putting a hand on their shoulder or similar, where others will be seriously upset by such an action. Observe how their parent or carer instructs them and talks to them, and take your cues accordingly.

The most important thing to remember is that you should interact with them, not ignore them to speak directly to their parent or carer.

Observation is key - people with special needs may not be able to verbally communicate any discomfort they're feeling, so you must be able to spot the signs in order to take appropriate action.

Any rules that you present must be followed consistently to avoid confusion, but you must also be flexible - if an individual doesn't want to let go of a parent or carer during an activity, bring the parent or carer in for a few minutes and then gradually let them step back.

Visual, tactile and other sensory cues can be very useful; many hospitals and schools have special sensory rooms set up where the equipment can be used either for relaxation or for stimulation. These look very impressive but can often be set up at a surprisingly low cost. There are other things which can be used to provide stimulation, too, such as chewy wrist bands or necklaces for those who are comforted by oral stimulation, and vibrating pillows and "snakes".

Getting into Special Needs Work

There are many ways to get into special needs work; many organisations need volunteers, and this is an excellent way to start. You must be ready to commit to a schedule; many of the people you work with will find routine and familiarity comforting, and will be upset if you stop appearing for a few weeks and then suddenly return.

If you want to work with special needs children in schools, then becoming a teacher's aide is an option. With the appropriate training, you'll be an invaluable asset to the school in helping to integrate children with a range of learning and social disabilities with the mainstream.

You can also train to work as a carer, which will bring you into contact with a wide range of needs, and there are plenty of agencies that you can work with. Again, the appropriate training is very important; if it isn't offered by the agency, find out how you can get the right training for yourself, to be sure that you're providing the best care possible.

Interesting Videos

A good example of a school sensory room, something which is not too expensive to create.

A CBBC Newsround special presented by a girl with autism and explaining her world.

American teenagers talk about their volunteer work with special needs children in Ecuador

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