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What are the best ways to assess and diagnose special needs?

How to determine whether your child has special needs

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Sometimes it will be obvious that your child has special needs. Other times it won’t be.

This will depend partly on the type of special need your child might have, as well as its severity. For instance, a severe form of a developmental disability, such as autism or Down syndrome, may be apparent early. Meanwhile, a mild form of a learning disability, such as dyslexia, language processing disorder (LPD), or visual processing disorder (VPD), may be more difficult to spot.

If you think your child may have a special need, you should try to verify this as soon as possible. Early diagnosis can allow you to understand your child better, plan for the future, and anticipate challenges that may lay ahead. It can also help you access crucial special needs resources.

Below, education experts weigh in on how to best assess and diagnose certain types of special education needs. To learn about special education in general, and view a list of special needs schools, read our comprehensive guide.

Click here to view a list of special needs schools

Ruth Rumack, director of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, a personalized educational support program, in Toronto, Ontario
“If a parent thinks their child has ADHD, a family physician or pediatrician can provide an assessment by screening a child’s psychiatric and medical history, mental health conditions, and performing a physical. Also, these professionals might interview parents and have them complete a Conners Comprehensive Behaviour Rating Scale (Conners CBRS), a series of questions about the child to determine whether he or she has ADHD. If a parent suspects their child has a learning disability or another associated disability, psychologists can perform psychoeducational assessments. These assessments evaluate a student’s cognitive ability, areas of strength and weakness, identify any learning disabilities and provide recommendations for additional support, as required. Determining whether a child has ADHD can also be part of a psychoeducational assessment.”

Heidi Bernhardt, national director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness in Canada (CADDAC)
“You should go to your family doctor if you suspect your child has ADHD. After an initial assessment, an ADHD specialist can give a final diagnosis. Following the diagnosis, it’s a good idea to get a private psychoeducational assessment performed because ADHD is a mental disorder that is rarely found alone. An assessment will target all mental problems in order to come up with the best treatment plan possible.

An assessment can cost from $1500-$2000, and is not covered by the federal government in Canada. Some school systems can provide psychoeducational assessments for children diagnosed with ADHD, but waitlists are very long and the child’s report ultimately belongs to the school system. Thus, if you can afford it, a private assessment might be the best option.”

Ruth Rumack, director of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, a personalized educational support program, in Toronto, Ontario
“If a parent thinks that their child may be on the autism spectrum, qualified professionals such as speech and language pathologists, audiologists, neurologists, psychologists, or pediatricians can perform comprehensive assessments, which include a medical evaluation, medical and mental health history, and speech and language assessment. In particular, speech and language pathologists can perform speech and language assessments to evaluate a child’s communication ability.”

Reading disabilities
Una Malcolm, director of Appletree Learning, a personalized educational support program in Toronto, Ontario
“If parents are concerned about their child’s reading, I strongly caution against a ‘wait and see’ approach, as this can be incredibly damaging in the long run and can waste valuable remediation time. There is such a short window for successfully remediating a reading issue, and to lose valuable time waiting for the problem to spontaneously resolve itself is shortsighted. Parents shouldn’t hesitate to advocate for extra reading support at school, or to get tutoring in an evidence-based approach. A child may benefit from a large-scale psychoeducational assessment from a registered psychologist. These assessments are extensive and thorough, and give a very detailed picture into a child’s cognitive, learning, and socioemotional profile.”

Learning disabilities
Elaine Danson, educational consultant at Elaine Danson and Associates Educational Consultants, in Toronto, Ontario
“If there is concern that your child has a learning disability, you should have a psychoeducational assessment done with a psychologist. This can be done privately or by school board psychologists.”

Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolff Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario
“‘Special needs’ is a general term used to describe a myriad of more specific diagnoses. Ontario schools use the Ministry of Education definitions to identify ‘special needs’ students. In order to meet the criteria, usually some form of a standardized assessment will have to be completed. Most often, this is a psychological assessment administered by a registered psychologist. But, it might be a speech and language assessment or hearing or vision test, as well.”

Click here to view a list of special needs schools


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