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August 2022
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Diagnosing Special Educational Needs

If you think your child is struggling at school, either academically or socially or whether you have concerns but you are unable to pinpoint what the problem might be, it could be that your child has a special educational need (SEN). It is very easy for children to fall behind in their school work or suffer in silence because their symptoms aren’t acknowledged or recognised, so the earlier an SEN is diagnosed, the sooner your child’s school will be able to provide the extra support your child needs. One in five children are officially diagnosed with special educational needs. That is an average of six children in every class of thirty and there are no doubt many more children whose conditions remain ‘below the radar’ because their symptoms go undetected. The term SEN refers to a very broad range of needs, including children who may be talented and gifted. Only a tiny percentage of children with SEN are statemented (2.8%), and the majority are given additional help and support from resources within their school and in some cases from external specialists.

Children with SEN may need help in a range of areas. The broad definition of SEN is best demonstrated by the government’s list of the type of help a child with SEN may need:

  • help with schoolwork
  • reading, writing, number work or understanding information
  • expressing themselves or understanding what others are saying
  • making friends or relating to adults
  • behaving properly in school
  • organising themselves
  • some kind of sensory or physical needs which may affect them in school

Some of these needs are more complex than others and can be a result of specific disorders.  These can sometimes be more difficult to diagnose, but there are general symptoms some or all of which may be exhibited by children with specific disorders. Some of the most commonly diagnosed disorders and their characteristics are outlined below.

The Autistic Spectrum

The three main disorders which are considered part of the autistic spectrum are ‘Autism’, ‘Asperger syndrome’ and ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified’ (PDD-NOS).  They are commonly referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). ASDs affect information processing in the brain and are a lifelong developmental disability that affect how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. The term ‘spectrum disorder’ is used because the condition affects people in many different ways and to varying degrees. It is worth mentioning that there is still much debate about the characteristics and diagnoses of ASDs. The classification and diagnosis of Autism, Aspergers and other related disorders is constantly changing and is increasingly the subject of much discussion and dispute.


Children with autism may display a characteristic range of symptoms to varying degrees including:

  • impairments in social interaction and communication
  • restricted interest eg in a single televisions programme, toy or game
  • repetitive behavior such as head rolling and hand flapping
  • resistance to change and a need for strict routines of a ritualistic fashion
  • self-injury such as headbanging, eye poking, hand biting, which can also be inflicted on others

Asperger’s syndrome

Asberger’s syndrome is a milder form of autism that is often referred to as a ‘hidden’ disability and it can therefore take longer to diagnose. What distinguishes Asperger’s from Autism is the severity of the symptoms and the absence of language delays. Children with Asperger’s may be only mildly affected and frequently have good language and cognitive skills whereas children with autism are frequently seen as aloof and uninterested in others.

Typical characteristics of children with Aberger’s can include:

  • difficulty socialising, sometimes becoming isolated
  • their speech may sound strange to others
  • difficulty with ‘two-way’ conversations and forming relationships
  • co-ordination can be difficult (eg using scissors, riding a bike)
  • an intense interest in a particular subject  (eg cars, trains, astronomy, etc)

Children with Aspergers find it difficult to tell people what they need or how they feel and they may not be able to understand what other people think or feel.  The concept of ‘lying’ or ‘joking’ can also be difficult for them to understand. They may have specific accompanying learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or epilepsy.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified’ (PDD-NOS) 

Often called ‘atypical autism’, PDD-NOS is diagnosed when the criteria for Autism and Aspergers are not fully met and the symptoms appear ‘milder’ than those of Aspergers.

For more information about ASDs, visit the National Autistic Society website.

Pragmatic Language Impairment (PLI)

PLI is an impairment in understanding the semantic aspect of language (ie the meaning of what is being said) and the pragmatics of language (ie using language appropriately in social situations).

Children with pragmatic language impairment may say inappropriate or unrelated things during conversations or use unusual language and vocabulary. However, they can have age appropriate complexity of sentence construction and word structure and can appear to have fluent, complex and clearly articulated expressive language.  Characteristics may include:

  • finding group participation difficult and interacting inappropriately
  • having problems making and maintaining friendships
  • interpreting instructions or information very literally
  • needing very explicit social rules and boundaries
  • thinking inflexibly and finding judgement difficult

Specific Language Impairment (SLI)

Children with SLI are usually as able and healthy as other children in all ways, with the exception that they have difficulty talking and understanding language. Areas of difficulty may include some or all of the following:

  • saying what they want to, even though they have ideas
  • sounding muddled; it can be difficult to follow what they are saying
  • finding it difficult to understand words and long instructions
  • having difficulty remembering the words they want to say
  • finding it hard to join in and follow what is going on in the playground

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Also known as attention deficit disorder (ADD), ADHD is thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects the parts controlling attention, concentration and impulsivity.  Children with ADHD may show a number of different behavioural problems, including the following:

  • they can be inattentive and easily distracted, impulsive (speaking and acting without thinking), and unable to sit still
  • they may speak without thinking, act silly in a crowd, be overpowering and bossy and quite volatile
  • they may be physically clumsy, disorganised, have poor attention to detail, and find it difficult to follow tasks

ADHD affects 5% of school-age children in the UK. For some invaluable information on ADHD/ADD visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Developmental Dyspraxia

Developmental Dyspraxia is a disability that affects movement and co-ordination. It is thought to be caused by a disruption in the way messages from the brain are transmitted to the body. Statistically, one child in every class of 30 is affected by it and many children with dyspraxia have ADHD and /or dyslexia. Symptoms include:

  • clumsiness
  • lack of co-ordination
  • problems with language, perception and thought

Children with dyspraxia may benefit from speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. For more information about Dyspraxia contact the Dyspraxia Foundation.


Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that causes problems with learning language-based skills. It is a neurological condition that affects around 10 – 20% of the population to some degree.

People who have dyslexia often have trouble with

  • reading, writing and spelling
  • concentration
  • short term memory
  • coordination
  • communication skills

Being incapable of paying attention for long periods of time, finding it hard to make friends, being prone to tantrums and appearing insensitive to other people’s feelings could also be indications of a dyslexic condition. For more information contact Dyslexia Action.

The above list of diagnoses is by no means comprehensive and there are many other conditions and disorders which children may require help with at school. There is also a lot of overlap in terms of the symptoms of many of the above diagnoses, so it is very important that your child is diagnosed by a specialist. If you are in any doubt at all as to the outcome of the diagnosis, request a second opinion. If you are worried about your child in relation to any of the above symptoms, then talk to your child’s teacher and the school’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO).  It is also worth getting your child a hearing test and an eye test to rule out other potential causes of your child’s symptoms.

For help in getting your child the right support, click here.  There are a vast number of charities and support services which can give you help and advice with SEN and these are listed on our links page.


Sources:  National Autistic Society, Dyslexia Action, Being Dyslexic, Dyspraxia Foundation, Directgov, Netdoctor, National Institute of Mental Health, SENDIST, Wikipedia, NHS Choices, I CAN, Kidspeech, The Communication Trust, Northshore Pediatric Therapy.


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