Key terms explained: Special needs and disability

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The language used by schools and support services can be confusing to many parents and carers.

This page explains some of the main terms to do with special needs.

On other pages we explain:

Terms to do with special needs

Accessible When people can get into a place, or take part in an event, program or activity, whether or not they have special needs. If everyone can get there and be part of something, then it’s accessible.

Assessment and re-assessment – A test or group of tests your child does to get information about their special needs. Sometimes an assessment can lead to a diagnosis, for example of a disability or a chronic illness. Re-assessment is done regularly for children with special needs at school, to check if their needs have changed.

Case management – A case manager can help you organise support and funding for your child with special needs. They can help guide you through the system, and might sometimes help advocate for your child at school.

Childhood Autism Rating Scale, or CARS – A common test for a child who might have autism. It tests things including how the child relates to others, moves their body, uses objects, sees, listens and communicates.

Chronic illness – Illness that a person often lives with for a long time, like asthma, arthritis, diabetes or heart disease.

Communication aid or device – Something a person uses that helps them communicate. It might be a book or chart with pictures or symbols, or an electronic device. Some children use an iPad to help with communication.

Department of Human Services or DHS – the Victorian government department who looks after most disability services outside school. A different section of DHS manages foster care. You might get funding from DHS to get extra help for your child with special needs.

Development – When a child gets new or stronger abilities, such as to talk, walk, read, or to get along with others. Young children with special needs might not get a diagnosis yet, but might be said to have a ‘developmental delay’.

Diagnosis – A name for your child’s special needs, which might be one or more types of disability or illness.

Disability – A way of understanding one or more things about how your child’s body or mind works, which is different to most other people. Your child’s disability might mean that they sometimes need extra help to be well, move around, hear, see, learn, communicate or feel comfortable. Having a disability does not mean there is anything wrong with your child. The problem is that we live a world that often ‘disables’ people, by not being accessible to them.

Disability service – There are many different kinds of disability services. The support they give can include different kinds of therapy, respite, help with aids and equipment, planning and case management, support and advocacy.

Early Childhood Intervention Service ­– A service that works with children with special needs before school age, and includes specialists like speech therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists and others. And Early Childhood Intervention Service might be part of a larger disability service, or separate.

IQ Test – A test done to work out your child’s understanding level. A common IQ test is the WISC (see below). Your child’s score from this can tell you whether they can go to a specialist school, and what kind.

Learning disability or learning difficulty – This is when a child has the same ability to understand as most other children, but needs extra help with part of their learning. Learning difficulties can affect a child’s focus, or their reading, writing, maths, ability to understand instructions or questions, memory, speaking or other things.

National Disability Insurance Scheme or NDIS – A program giving extra support to people with a disability. It is only in some areas now, but should soon be available to help all children with a disability and their families.

Personal care – help from a disability organisation, usually provided by a disability support worker, with day-to-day things like eating, washing, dressing or going to the toilet.

Special needs – One or more differences between your child and most other children, which affects what they need so they can be well, move around, hear, see, learn, communicate or feel comfortable. Special needs can include disability, chronic illness and mental health issues.

Vineland Adaptive Behaviour Scale, or Vineland – a common test for children who might have an intellectual disability, autism or developmental delay. It looks at things like a child’s behaviour and everyday living skills such as walking, talking, getting dressed and playing.

Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, or WISC – a common test for children who might have an intellectual disability or developmental delay. It can be done without reading or writing, and results in an IQ score, which represents a child’s ‘cognitive ability’, or understanding level.