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What are some common signs that a child has special needs?

Some early indicators that your child has special education needs

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

This will depend partly on the type of special need or disability your child might have, as well as its severity. For instance, a physical disability, such as blindness or deafness, may become apparent quickly. Meanwhile, a mild form of a learning disability, such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, may be harder to detect.

If you suspect your child may have a special need, you’ll want to find out as soon as possible. Early detection can allow you to understand challenges your child may encounter in the future.

Click here to view a list of special needs schools

Below, education experts weigh in on the signs and symptoms of 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.

Heidi Bernhardt, national director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness in Canada (CADDAC)
“The DSM outlines a list of diagnostic criteria to determine if a child has ADHD, and if so, what type.

For the symptom of inattention, nine associated behaviours are described:

  • failing to give close attention to details or making careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities
  • difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
  • not seeming to listen when spoken to directly
  • not following through on instructions and failing to finish school work, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behaviour or failure to understand instructions)
  • difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • avoiding, disliking, or being reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as schoolwork or homework)
  • losing things necessary for tasks or activities (e.g., toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools)
  • being easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  • being forgetful in daily activities

For the symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, the following behaviours are described:

  • fidgeting with hands or feet or squirming in seat
  • leaving their seat in classroom or in other situations in which remaining seated is expected
  • running around or climbing excessively in situations in which it is inappropriate (in adolescents or adults, may be limited to subjective feelings of restlessness)
  • difficulty playing or engaging in leisure activities quietly
  • being ‘on the go’ or often acting as if ‘driven by a motor’
  • talking excessively
  • blurting out answers before questions have been completed
  • difficulty awaiting turn
  • interrupting or intruding on others (e.g., butting into conversations or games)

Judging from the last 6 months of behaviour, if a child meets 6 out of the 9 criteria for the symptom of inattention, they could have primarily inattentive ADHD. If they meet 6 out of the 9 criteria for hyperactivity and impulsivity, they could have primarily hyperactive ADHD. If they meet both criteria, they could be diagnosed with combined ADHD.”

Suzanne Lanthier, former executive director of Autism Speaks Canada
Autism can often be diagnosed or detected at an early age. There are many possible early indicators of autism.

A short list of autism symptoms is as follows:

  • lack of babbling or pointing by age one
  • lack of any single words by 16 months age
  • lack of response to name being called
  • poor eye contact
  • excessive need for quiet and order
  • lack of smiling or responsiveness to others

Symptoms of autism for toddler-aged children or older include the following:

  • weakness in making friends or relating to peers
  • lack of ability to engage in conversation
  • repetitive actions
  • repetitive or strange language patterns
  • obsession-like preoccupation with objects or conversational subjects

The above list is by no means comprehensive or authoritative. Since autism is a spectrum, these or other signs of autism may manifest in various degrees. Parents who witness these symptoms in their child are urged to consult the opinion of a health professional for diagnosis.”

Language-based learning disabilities
Una Malcolm, director of Appletree Learning, a personalized educational support program in Toronto, Ontario
“Roots of a phonemic awareness-based learning disability can be seen in very young children. Issues with oral language are typically red flags. For example, a child in kindergarten who struggles to rhyme should be receiving extra support. Children who have family members who have struggled with reading or writing should also be closely monitored. Oral language can give indicators about a child’s future reading and writing success; students who struggle with pronunciation or sequencing parts of words may be at risk for challenges learning to read. For example, students with language-based learning disabilities may call an animal an ‘aminal,’ or they may say ‘bisghetti’, instead of spaghetti. Parents should closely monitor their child’s reading development, and shouldn’t hesitate to ask the teacher what benchmark level the child is reading at, and where that falls in relation to the grade’s expected levels.”

Steven Truch, educational psychologist and founder of The Reading Foundation
“There are three common signs that a child has dyslexia.

  • Difficulty pronouncing and rhyming words: children of all abilities can sometimes mispronounce words; however, parents should take note when a child has frequent and lingering trouble figuring out vowel sounds or when they switch syllables when saying a word such as “butterfly,” pronouncing it as “flutter-by” instead. Also children with potential dyslexia may not easily be able to recognize or rhyme words at an early age, even very simple ones like “cat” and “bat.”
  • Slow, inaccurate reading skills: young children with dyslexia are often not able to sound out unknown words on their own, and therefore may guess at words based on context or skip the word altogether. Because they are slower to develop their reading skills, parents may notice reluctance, hesitation, or anxiety about reading.
  • Poor spelling skills: although it is common for all children to confuse “b” and “d,” as well as other letters, this confusion tends to disappear at an early age for normal readers and linger for a longer time with children who may be dyslexic. Children with dyslexia have great difficulty with spelling. Errors can be of several types, such as leaving out a vowel or consonant letter, or omitting whole syllables in their spelling.”

Learning disabilities
Elaine Danson, educational consultant at Elaine Danson and Associates Educational Consultants, in Toronto, Ontario
“Parents often alert teachers or their paediatrician that they don’t feel their child is learning typically. There are signs that the child isn’t recognizing letters, interested in reading, understanding instructions in the classroom, is having trouble holding a pencil and writing numbers and letters, isn’t understanding the lessons, or perhaps isn’t sitting in their seat long enough to understand. This discussion may lead to meetings at the school where assessments are gathered by the teacher and resource teachers and strategies shared. If there is concern, the teacher or pediatrician will recommend a psychoeducational assessment with a psychologist.  This can be done privately or by school board psychologists.”

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