Sometimes, trying to help your child can leave you feeling like a character in Stranger Things: looking for clues about what’s really going on, and sometimes even wondering if everything is upside-down. This experience is something both Dr. Maia and I have and continue to personally experience with our own children.  Finding the root cause(s) of our kids challenges, realizing that as we address one issue another one arises, as they grow and develop new challenges rear their heads. Sometimes it can feel as though the special needs journey never ends, it simply evolves and changes.  It can be exhausting for the entire family and parents need all of the support and resources they can to help their family thrive, even through special needs challenges. I hope this blog is helpful for any parent dealing with a special needs child! 

How can you tell if your child has special needs, and what does that mean for your family and future?

While this topic can feel confusing, thankfully, there are some simple ways to define and categorize special needs. What’s more, there are more resources available for children with special needs, families, and parents than ever before! 

Read on for a primer on common types of special needs, how to address them functionally, typical challenges, and helpful resources.

What does it mean to have “special needs”?

The term “special needs” is a broad umbrella for multiple conditions and challenges. This phrase spans the gamut from dysgraphia to Down syndrome and everything in between. What’s more, some special needs are lifelong conditions, while others can be resolved over time.

Simply put, a special need is a difficulty or impairment that requires specialized services or assistance. 

Special needs children generally need a specific type of attention or care that others do not. These needs can vary in both severity and type, from physical to mental health. One child with autism spectrum disorder may have special needs concerning their social skills, while another with muscular dystrophy might require physical help with a wheelchair or breathing.

While only one individual in a family may have this diagnosis, the entire family is usually affected. Whether it’s appointments for physical therapy or exercises to strengthen spatial reasoning at home, parents and siblings will certainly be along for the journey of understanding and caring for a child with special needs.

Common Types of Special Needs

Unfortunately, many people don’t understand that “special needs” can encompass a broad range of opportunities for children to overcome. To that end, there are four common types of special needs to narrow this umbrella down. Once you find out what category (or categories) your child’s unique case falls into, you’ll be able to better understand what care is needed.


Children who are not developing socially, intellectually, or even physically like their peers may have developmental special needs. These can occur due to genetic or environmental factors, or both in some cases. Developmental delays can be spotted as early as infancy in some cases.

Some of the more prevalent types of developmental special needs are:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (impaired communication and social interactions)
  • Down Syndrome or trisomy 21 (genetic disorder causing developmental delays and physical disabilities)
  • PANS/PANDAS (autoimmune conditions that interrupt neurological functions)
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (developmental damage due to alcohol exposure in the womb)

While there are more varieties of developmental disabilities than listed here, a combination of therapies, medical intervention, and help at home can improve symptoms and aid in developing new skills.


If your hardworking child is falling behind in the classroom, a special need in the learning category may be the cause. 

Learning special needs indicate that the person needs additional support in an educational setting. There may be trouble expressing thoughts in a written form, reading, math, processing, and more.

Among others, learning disabilities can commonly include:

  • Dysgraphia (difficulty writing)
  • Dyslexia (difficulty reading)
  • Auditory Processing Disorder (the brain has difficulty receiving and interpreting sounds)
  • Dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers and math)

Parents of special needs students should know their child is in need of specialized support to make the most of their education. 

This doesn’t mean, however, that their child can’t be successful in school. Many educational institutions have a special needs program that works individually with students throughout the school day. 

Usually, testing is needed to diagnose special needs, and many public schools provide resources to get an answer on why your child is struggling in the classroom. From there, you have many options on how to help your child learn in the best way for them.

Mental Health and Behavioral

Behavioral or mental health special needs can affect the child’s ability to:

  • Form healthy attachments or relationships
  • Sit still or participate in family or classroom activities
  • Respond to disciplinary measures appropriately
  • Feel control over their self-esteem and habits

This can impair academic performance and personal relationships. These special needs often require creative methods from parents, teachers, and health care professionals.

Behavioral and mental health special needs can range across:

  • ADHD (inattentiveness, often combined with hyperactivity)
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (moodiness, disobedience, and frustration with authority figures)
  • Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, etc)

There are many other mental health and behavioral special needs, many of which are still being categorized as we learn more about these fields. Behavioral therapies and functional treatment can often improve the symptoms of this variety of special needs over time.


Children with medical special needs are often in and out of doctor’s appointments, seeking the best health care for their condition. These are often physically evident, and the diagnosis is usually more straightforward with these physical disabilities. 

Frequently seen medical special needs may include:

  • Cerebral palsy (brain damage that affects movement, motor skills, and muscle)
  • Hearing loss or deafness
  • Blindness
  • Diabetes (both type 1 and type 2)
  • Muscular dystrophy (muscle diseases that weaken and break down skeletal muscle)
  • Asthma (respiratory condition that causes breathing difficulties)

These are just a few of the diagnoses in this category. While wondering about your child’s health can seem overwhelming, we at The M Center believe that a good team around your little one can relieve much of the concern that comes with these conditions.

Special Needs by the Numbers

Though being a parent of children with special needs can be emotional and feel isolating at times, families in these situations are far from alone, especially with the help of an experienced treatment team. What’s more, special needs are more common than you might think.

In a 2005 study, 18.5% of children in the US had some form of special needs. 

Based on healthcare trends, ever-improving ways of diagnosing special needs, and increasing amounts of young people diagnosed with mental health concerns, that number will likely continue to increase. 

17.4% of children, or one in every six, has been diagnosed with a special need in the behavioral, developmental, or mental health area. 

Behaviorally, 9.4% of American children under 17 have received an ADHD diagnosis. 7.4% of children in the USA have been diagnosed with a behavior problem of some sort. 

In regards to mental health, 7.1% of children are living with anxiety, and 3.4% deal with depression. 

This same study found that most children with depression also experience another comorbid condition: concurrent anxiety (74%) or behavior issues (47%) were most common. 

Unfortunately, depression and anxiety are on the rise over the course of time, with steady increases over the past two decades.

Developmental delays are also more common than you may think. ASD affects as many as one in every 59 children. However, these rates seem to finally be slowing after a steady climb during the past few decades.

While these statistics may feel overwhelming, the positive news is that as these special needs take center stage, our ability to diagnose, plan for, and treat them grows! Whatever your child is facing, there is another family out there who understands, and a world of treatment options.

A Functional Approach to Addressing Special Needs

Despite the multiplicity of treatments available for special needs, not all are created equal. There is a concerning tendency in current medical culture to slap a pharmaceutical prescription on special needs without trying to understand the root issue. 

A functional approach to addressing special needs looks quite different.

Functional medicine is based on identifying and zeroing in on the root cause of a condition or disease. As a functional medicine pediatric practice, we believe that many types of special needs we see are manifestations of the same root causes.

One excellent example is the set of PANS/PANDAS, ADHD, and autism. While these special needs all present differently, the root causes generally stem from inflammation, poor nutrition, digestive problems, and poor immune response. 

When we treat the same root issues, the symptoms of all three improve.

For a functional approach, one must consider a number of factors:

  1. Nutritional deficiencies
  2. Environmental toxins
  3. Existing pathogens
  4. Autoimmune and immune status
  5. Stress
  6. Emotional state

From here, we can create a path to better health. 

Poor nutrition or malabsorption can not only contribute to some cases of special needs, but further prevent the body from detoxing from environmental toxins that may build up inside the body. This can also inhibit immune function, or vice versa. 

Finally, chronic stress and negative emotional state can damage overall health, from hormones to the immune system. Interestingly, some of these psychological effects on health seem to be worse in children and adolescents. 

For these and many other reasons, it’s important to seek out a pediatrician familiar with a functional approach to special needs. Not only will they seek out the root issues behind your child’s difficulties, but they can also point you to a network of occupational therapists, chiropractors, behavioral therapists, and more to give your child holistic care and support.

Are you in the greater Atlanta area? Our clinic is located in Roswell, GA. We’d love to hear from you.

Challenges for Children with Special Needs & Their Families

The challenges for children with special needs and their families will vary drastically from case to case. 

Firstly, the most clear-cut challenge is for individuals with medical, physical special needs. 

New opportunities may arise like learning sign language, ensuring that prescriptions are consistently refilled, or keeping oxygen tanks handy. These practical concerns are common when dealing with a medical special need. Thankfully, there are more apps and services available than ever before to juggle these considerations.

Social situations and norms can also prove difficult, particularly those with mental health, behavioral, or developmental types of special needs. Luckily, with increasing numbers of children diagnosed with these issues, public awareness is growing as well. 

Eye contact, sitting still for long periods, or carrying on a conversation may prove tough. Studies have shown that placing children with mild special needs alongside their peers is actually beneficial in the long run, as well as more satisfying. 

In more trying situations, your team of doctors and therapists can help you create plans to meet your child’s social needs.

In the classroom, learning special needs can be trying, but having a diagnosis makes getting your child the care they need much easier. 

Your school psychologist, special education program, or current teacher can implement measures and an individualized education plan that fits your child’s needs. While there may be an adjustment period, your child is moving toward learning that works for them far better than what they’ve experienced.

While societal pressures and misunderstandings can feel overwhelming sometimes for families and children with special needs, your functional medicine doctor and team can keep you reminded of the progress you’re already making and what is reasonable to expect. 

Pro tip: if all else fails, try jamming out together to “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman soundtrack. 

Resources for Children & Families

Sometimes, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first. Parent to Parent USA is an organization that will match you to a “buddy parent,” someone who has a child with similar special needs to yours. This will help cut down on social isolation that some caregivers experience, and help you celebrate the wins with someone who truly understands. 

Click here for more information and to see if your state participates.

Disabled Sports USA is dedicated to making sure children with physical, intellectual, and developmental special needs can play, just like kids should. Their website is detailed, informative, and inspiring.

The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disabilities provides tools and strategies to get your child with special needs ready to succeed at their future job.

For more specific resources for the different types of special needs, check out:

  • The National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  • My Med Schedule is a free phone app that digitally keeps track of medications taken, which may be particularly helpful for families with a medical special need.
  • This page has great resources for parents on behavioral and mental health needs. 
  • Easter Seals has a variety of amazing resources, but particularly excellent ones for autism and mental health special needs.

Your local functional medicine team can also point you in the direction of any resources unique to your area.

We would love to help you and your family in any way possible! Please feel free to reach out to us at 888-381-8556 or!

In Summary

  • Nailing down a definition of “special needs” can be tricky, but a special need is a condition that requires specialized care or assistance beyond what is given to a child’s peers.
  • This term is a broad umbrella, but the four major categories of special needs are developmental, learning, mental health/behavioral, and medical.
  • While we tend to think of special needs as isolated incidents, 18.5% of U.S. children are estimated to fall into this category. One in every 59 children experiences ASD. 
  • Functional medicine attempts to find the triggers and root causes of these conditions, examining nutritional deficiencies, environmental toxins, existing pathogens, autoimmune and immune status, stress, and emotional state. We also recommend a team of other experts to approach the problem holistically.
  • Children with special needs and their families will commonly face challenges in education, social settings, and classrooms, but as public understanding of these conditions grows, these pressures may become easier.
  • There are many resources for children and families with special needs, from parent support networks to apps and community centers — all you need to do is click.
  • While special needs can be challenging to care for, they are not an insurmountable obstacle to your child and their future. Today, we have more understanding and tools than ever before to create a bright outlook for your little one with special needs.


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