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The Exceptional Child with Special needs

by Sudha Chandrasekaran
(Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India)

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn whatever state I am in, therein to be content,” says Helen Keller, the American educator who overcame the adversity of being blind and deaf to become one of the 20th century's leading humanitarians.

"Special Needs" is an umbrella underneath which a staggering array of diagnoses can be wedged. Children with special needs, also known as the exceptional ones, may have mild learning disabilities or profound cognitive impairment; food allergies or terminal illness; developmental delays that catch up quickly or remain entrenched; occasional panic attacks or serious psychiatric problems. Autism, Epilepsy, Cerebral Palsy, Dyslexia, Deafness, Blindness and Down syndrome are all examples of 'special needs'. It also includes disabilities, which distort messages from their senses; Emotional Disabilities which include antisocial or other behavioural problems. Cleft lips, palates or missing limbs are also considered as special needs.

So often Special needs kids’ challenges are described in terms of impairment (disability, special needs), words that encompass their entire beings. But "rebel" makes it clear. It is just a part of them that is acting up and does not let their challenges define who they are.

A child with Down syndrome has a rebel chromosome.
A child with autism has rebel senses.
A child with a genetic condition has rebel genes.
A child with hearing issues has rebel ears.
A child with vision issues has rebel eyes.
A child with developmental delays has rebel timing.

‘Exceptional Children’ differ from normal children in that they require special education and physical settings planned exclusively for their needs to help them achieve greatest self-sufficiency and success in community. Researches point out that 5.1 million children in the world are 'special' children. Unfortunately in India, children with special needs are mostly not treated as special, but instead as though they are of unsound mind. This insensitivity tragically stems from social taboos, adult ignorance, parental embarrassment and lack of specialists. These parents are marginalized and denied vital technical expertise and attention which is required to help them realize their child’s potential.

On learning their child’s developmental problem, a tremendous blow strikes the parents. Says Kavitha, a pharmacist, “The day my child was diagnosed as having a disability, I was devastated and confused that I recall little else about those first days other than the heartbreak”. Another parent described this event as a ‘black sack ‘being pulled down her head, blocking her ability to hear, see and think in normal ways. Monisha described the trauma as “having a knife stuck” in her heart. Every parent is different and goes through a series of emotions. She first goes through the gamut of self-pity, denial, embarrassment, prayer and despair. The fact is not accepted immediately. Gradually the realization that her child has an irresolvable problem dawns on her and action follows. Identifying those needs is a task strewn with many barriers. No clinical tests exist to diagnose different mental builds and these differences need to be 'inferred'. A few among the problems, like those with Down's syndrome (mental retardation) are easier to detect. When it comes to Autism however, diagnosis gets complex because autism spans a wide spectrum: from the barely discernible to the well-defined, with several shades in between. These conditions cannot be termed diseases as they cannot be 'cured', but most of the children can be trained to care for themselves. The movie ‘Tare Zameen par’ sent home this message clearly. When finally the parents get a diagnosis of their child’s condition, they might even feel relieved, as, knowing the condition is useful for getting the needed services, setting appropriate goals, and gaining of understanding for the child and the stressed family.

However there is a positive change in social attitudes towards children with special needs because of an increased awareness of the types of physical and mental disabilities as well as guidance available to make things better for them. This requires making physical settings friendly to the physically challenged; opening regular schools which have special equipment and teachers for them; allowing interaction with normal children; and for all to learn to accept disability as part of the human condition and respect these differences.

Government has been taking steps to ensure that children with special needs are not segregated but instead get an opportunity to attend regular schools with normal children. World conference in Salamanca, Spain on Special Need Education gave 'inclusion' as a better option for special children. The philosophy behind inclusive education is to promote opportunities for all children to participate, learn and have equal treatment, irrespective of their mental or physical abilities. While the awareness on inclusive education is still in its infancy, educational institutions are somewhat sceptical about having the normal and special children studying in the same classroom. Majority of differently- abled children do not receive any formal education, in spite of the practice of inclusive education in some schools. This is because children with disabilities and learning deficiencies are segregated from regular routines and social activities of normal children. Other contributing factors to this situation are lack of affordability and awareness on the kind of education choices available to children with special needs. Inclusive education facilitates the integration of a special child with the mainstream. Another critical aspect of this type of education is the acceptance and friendship of classmates which helps them gain confidence within the school environment and finally in life. Parents also have a vital role as partners to make inclusive education successful within the classroom.

It is of utmost importance that children with special needs be identified as early as possible so that they receive the special help they need to live the best possible lives. Sometimes even the greatest challenge brings joy and satisfaction and parents of differently-abled children derive just this by bringing up their ‘exceptional’ child.


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