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What kinds of challenges and disabilities do special needs schools support?

Looking at learning, physical, developmental, and behavioural and emotional disabilities schools

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Quick summary

  • Schools support many different types of special needs and challenges. This includes learning, developmental, physical, and behavioural and emotional disabilities.
  • Many schools provide support for students with several different types of special needs. The type of support they provide, and the environment they provide it in, varies widely.
  • Learning disabilities are the most common type of special education need. Many schools provide specialized support for learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, auditory processing disorder, and visual processing disorder.
  • There are also less common special needs that some schools support. These include speech and language disorders and chronic illnesses.


While most schools provide some kind of support for children with special needs, this can mean many different things. Schools vary in how they provide this support, and the environment they provide it in.

Schools also vary in terms of which special needs they support. Some schools in Canada, both private and public, provide support for students with a wide range of special needs. Others specialize in one type of special need, such as learning disabilities, or one specific special need, such as ADHD.  

Click here to view a list of special needs schools

Types of special needs supported

To get a better sense of what types of special needs support is out there, it’s important to look at the different kinds of special education needs. What are the main kinds of special needs that schools support?

First, note that there’s no perfect way to divide special needs up. This can be done in many different ways.

One approach, the one we take at Our Kids, is to divide special needs up into four main categories: learning, developmental, physical, and behavioural and emotional challenges. Below, we discuss these in more detail.

Learning disability schools

Learning disabilities (LDs) are the most common special need. They’re generally defined as neurodevelopmental disorders that impair a student’s learning (Ontario Ministry of Education). Students with LDs have processing problems that can interfere with learning basic skills, such as reading, writing, or math. They also have average to above-average intelligence, according to Marjory Phillips of the Integra Program at the Child Development Institute.

Both private and public schools in Canada provide support for students with a wide range of learning disabilities or disorders. This includes both specific learning disabilities, which affect learning in one specific area (such as math). It also includes general learning disabilities, which affect overall learning and cognitive abilities.

  • Dyslexia: Language disorder involving problems with reading, writing, spelling, and speaking.
  • Dyscalculia: Math disorder involving problems with calculation, understanding time, and using money.
  • Dysgraphia: Writing disorder involving problems with handwriting, spelling, and organizing ideas.
  • Dysphasia/Aphasia: Language disorder involving problems understanding spoken language and poor reading comprehension.
  • Auditory processing disorder: Sound differentiation disorder involving problems with reading, comprehension, and language.
  • Visual processing disorder: Visual information interpretation disorder involving problems with reading, math, maps, charts, symbols, and pictures.


Special needs questions (read our in-depth answers)

Developmental disability schools

Developmental disabilities or disorders are a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavioural areas. According to Developmental Services Ontario (DSO), a developmental disability

  • is present at birth or develops before 18 years of age,
  • affects a person’s ability to learn,
  • is permanent,


  • can be mild or severe.

Persons with developmental disabilities, like those with LDs, often require more help to learn, understand, and use information than others. They may also have delayed language and social skills. And they may need help with daily life, as well as assistance to be as independent and successful as others.

Private and public schools in Canada vary in which, if any, developmental disabilities, they support. They also vary in the kind of support they provide.

  • Autism: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a pervasive developmental disorder. Kids with ASD can have trouble communicating, reading body language, making friends, making eye contact, and mastering academic skills.
  • Asperger’s syndrome: This is a neurobiological disorder on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Kids with Asperger’s have trouble with social and communication skills, as well as some of the same problems as kids with autism. Their IQs, though, are normally in the average to above-average range.
  • Down syndrome: This is a chromosomal abnormality that impedes development. It often leads to mild to severe intellectual delays, as well as delays in speech and language.
  • Intellectual disability: This is a condition characterized by significant limitations in intellectual functioning (e.g., reasoning, learning, and problem solving). It normally emerges before the age of 18 and can affect a range of social and practical skills.
  • Williams syndrome: This is a rare genetic disorder present at birth. Kids with Williams syndrome tend to have developmental delays, learning disabilities, and attention deficits. Many are also excessively social.
  • Expressive language disorder: Kids with this disorder have problems expressing themselves through speech. They may also have a limited vocabulary and problems recalling words and producing complex or long sentences.

Some also consider ADHD a developmental disability, though others disagree. Other developmental disorders include Angelman syndrome, fragile X syndrome, IsoDicentric 15, Landau-Kleffner syndrome, phenylketonuria, Prader-Willi syndrome, seizure disorders, and traumatic brain injury.

Physical disability schools

A physical disability is any condition that temporarily or permanently affects a person’s physical capacity and/or mobility.

There are many different types of physical disabilities. Private and public schools in Canada support students with a wide range of physical disabilities. Some of the main ones are listed below.

  • Blindness: Significant impairment of vision, which is temporary or permanent.
  • Deafness: Significant impairment of hearing, which is temporary or permanent.
  • Cystic Fibrosis (CF): An inherited genetic condition, which affects the body’s respiratory, digestive, and reproductive systems.
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS): A condition of the central nervous system affecting the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord. Symptoms can include fatigue, loss of motor control, memory loss, depression, and cognitive difficulties.
  • Cerebral Palsy (CP): A group of permanent movement disorders that appear in early childhood.
  • Muscular dystrophy: A group of disorders that lead to progressive and irreversible weakness and loss of muscle mass.
  • Dyspraxia: A Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) also known as “sensory integration disorder.” It affects fine and/or gross motor coordination in children and adults. It may also affect speech.
  • Spina bifida: A condition present at birth due to the incomplete formation of the spine and spinal cord. It can lead to a number of physical challenges, including paralysis or weakness in the legs, bowel and bladder incontinence, hydrocephalus (too much fluid in the brain), and deformities of the spine.
  • Tourette syndrome: A neurological disorder that involves involuntary and repetitive vocalizations, sounds, and movements, called “tics.”

Other physical disabilities include acquired brain and spinal injuries, neural tube defects, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, epilepsy, obesity, heart disease, sickle cell anemia, and diabetes.

Behavioural and emotional disorder schools

Behavioural and emotional disorders or disabilities can be innate or acquired. According to the Council for Exceptional Children, they often involve some of the following traits:

  • An inability to have satisfactory relationships with peers and teachers
  • An inability to learn, which can’t be explained by intellectual, sensory, or physical health factors
  • Consistent or chronic troublesome behaviour or feelings
  • A pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
  • The development of physical symptoms, pain, or unreasonable fears related to personal or school problems

There are lots of different types of behavioural and emotional disorders. Many schools in Canada provide support for one or more of these.

  • Clinical depression: A persistent mood disorder, which can involve feelings of sadness, loss, and anger that interferes with daily functioning.
  • Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD): A disruptive behavioural disorder which normally involves angry outbursts, often directed at people of authority. This behaviour must last continuously for six months or more and significantly interfere with daily functioning.
  • Clinical anxiety: A persistent disorder involving intense, relentless feelings of distress and fear that interfere with daily functioning.
  • Troubled behaviour/troubled teens: A variety of troubling behaviours and emotions often found in older kids and teens. This can involve drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behaviour, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and unpredictability.
  • Suicidal tendencies: Persistent thoughts about ending one’s life.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse: Excessive use of drug and/or alcohol, which interferes with daily functioning.

There are many other behavioural and emotional disorders. This list includes passive-aggressive disorder, conduct disorder, kleptomania, reactive attachment disorder, disruptive behaviour disorder, dissociative disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorderstrichotillomania disorders, and intermittent explosive disorder.

Less common special needs supported

There are other types of special needs, which may be less common. Many schools in Canada provide support for one or more of these types of special needs.

For instance, two other kinds of special needs schools are those which provide support for students with speech and language disorders and chronic illnesses.

  • Speech and language disorders: Apraxia of speech, dysarthria, orofacial myofunctional disorders, speech sound disorders, stuttering, voice issues, and selective mutism
  • Chronic illnesses: Asthma, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, heart diseases, and AIDS

Support for special needs provided by Our Kids schools

At OurKids.net, we profile private schools across Canada. These schools offer support for many different types of special needs students. Below, we break down what kinds of special needs our schools support, using the categories we outlined above.

Besides the question of which special needs a school supports, there are other important questions. There’s the question of what type of environment a school provides this in: e.g., a full-time special needs school, dedicated special needs class, integrated special needs class, withdrawal special education class, etc. There’s also the question of how a school delivers this support: e.g, through accommodations, modifications, remediations, etc.

To get far more detailed information about the special needs programming offered by schools on OurKids.net, check out our detailed school profiles. There you’ll find exactly which special needs a school supports, the environment it provides this support in, and how it delivers this support. You can also use new tools on our website to compare all schools or compare schools one-to-one in terms of their special needs support.

Answers to the question “What kinds of challenges and disabilities do special needs schools support?” from educational experts and school officials

Ruth Rumack, director of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, a personalized educational support program, in Toronto, Ontario
“Learning disabilities are categories of exceptionality and can be defined as neurological or brain-based challenges that cause discrepancy between a child’s academic achievement and assessed intellectual ability (Bennett et al., 2008). Moreover, learning disabilities can affect the way a person acquires, stores, retrieves, or uses information and knowledge. Learning disabilities may impair learning in areas such as language, visual-spatial, visual-motor, phonological, processing speed, working memory, and executive functions.

There are various kinds of educational programs helpful for the development of children with particular learning challenges. Direct Instruction research-based programs such as Reading Mastery, The Wilson Reading System, Handwriting Without Tears, and JUMP Math have had positive outcomes and resulted in significant progression for students with reading, fine motor, and math challenges. Moreover, assistive technologies can help students with a physical or cognitive challenge and can be instrumental in supporting students in completing academic tasks.”

Charleen Pryke, principal of The Dublaine School, a special needs school in TorontoOntario, specializing in learning disabilities and Asperger’s syndrome
“Parents often have the misconception that special needs schools mainly serve children with extreme intellectual impairments or behavioural disorders. While some schools do indeed specialize in meeting those needs, the spectrum of special education and its institutions is as varied as the students they serve. Many children who would otherwise function well in mainstream programs have gaps in their learning, skills, and social expertise. The right special needs approach can address and often remediate these directly and intensively. Some students flourish in specific, alternative environments (potentially benefiting from fewer distractions, a more nurturing social culture, or opportunities to be outdoors, etc.), while others do best when given space to pursue their passions through enrichment programs and greater independence.” 

Simon Williams, co-executive director of Foothills Academy, a learning disabilities school in Calgary, Alberta
“Students who do not fit the profile of the ‘typical’ student can benefit from a special needs school. At a special needs school, students with special needs can find staff who are extremely knowledgeable about their specific learning needs and can create a program to help them reach their full potential as learners. One of the most common special learning needs is a learning disability (LD). Students with an LD learn differently and require individualized instruction.

A learning disability is generally a deficit in a person’s ability to acquire, understand, retain, process or organize verbal or non-verbal information. There is a wide range of learning disabilities such as such as dyslexia, mathematical disabilities such as dyscalculia, and oral language disabilities, where students struggle with acquiring or processing information by listening or speaking. There are also many associated disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). These students must receive an individualized plan for their learning, which addresses their specific needs to access, and be successful in, the curriculum.” 

William Dickerman, admissions director of Hampshire Country School, a boarding school in Ridge, New Hampshire, supporting students with advanced learning abilities, and learning and developmental disabilities
“Parents considering a special school for their child may have a child with educational, emotional, physical, or behavioral difficulties. The child may also have physical problems that are severely interfering with schooling or home life. Despite accommodations available in public schools, the accommodations of a specialized school might still be preferable for many children. For instance, while a regular school might be able to manage a child with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, or explosive mood disorder, a child may be more likely to thrive in a small specialized school. Such a school may be comfortable with children bouncing around or becoming so intensely absorbed in their thoughts that they explode if they are interrupted.” 

Ian Peterson, business development director of Heritage School, a special needs school in Provo, Utah
“Special needs schools support a wide range of students. This includes students with mild learning difficulties, autism, and emotional and trauma-related needs. Other special needs served include specific learning disabilities and autism. Special needs schools often cater to a specific or several specific learning exceptionalities, from ADD to ADHD to ASD to dyslexia. They also try to provide a supportive environment that provides for all inclusion needs, including children with multiple exceptionalities.”

Terry Stevenson, director of Applewood Academy for Progressive Learning, a special needs school in Belleville, Ontario
Therapeutic schools support all types of individuals that require additional attention to help them achieve their highest level of achievement. This would include individuals impacted by physical challenges, developmental challenges, mental health issues, and/or genetic disorders.

Our admission and support plans are based on a model of therapeutic best interest for the individual. We use a strength-based approach. We want measurable goals. We try to ensure that we are adding something new, taking a different perspective on a presentation, or offering an environment that can optimize the individual’s level of achievement.”

Jenna Rowney-Giroux, vice principal of Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence, a special needs school in OttawaOntario, specializing in dyslexia and ADHD
“Special needs schools often cater to a specific or several specific learning exceptionalities, from ADHD to ASD to dyslexia. Since with one exceptionality often comes another, many schools try to provide the necessary environment for all inclusion needs.”

Click here to view a list of special needs schools




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