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I remember the first time we covered different types of special needs in my teacher certification courses. There were so many! Why did they all overlap?! How could I keep them all straight? 

Maybe you’re similarly overwhelmed. You might be concerned about your child, and wondering whether or not they have a special need. Maybe your child is already diagnosed, but you wonder what other kinds of special needs they’ll encounter in a special education classroom. Or maybe you’re an up and coming teacher going through your first class on “exceptionality.” (If so, good luck!) 

Whatever your reason, I’m happy to help. If you’re looking to learn a bit more about children with special needs, here’s a handy map to orient yourself.  

Types of Special Needs: A guide to understanding special education.

Are these ALL the types of special needs?

I’ll be using the term “special needs” in a very specific sense, as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA lists 13 different types of special needs as protected classes. It also says schools need to make accommodations for kids with these 13 conditions:

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Deaf/blindness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual impairment (including blindness)

If a child has one of these conditions, they’ll qualify for an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. An IEP is what allows students to get special services, whether they’re in public school or homeschooled. 

Obviously, there are MANY other conditions a child might have that aren’t on the list. ADHD is a common one. Some of those might make learning difficult, and any of them could qualify as a special need. If it really impacts learning, the child is legally entitled to specialized education. (Instead of having an IEP, however, they’d have a different document called a 504 Plan.)

To break this all down, I’ve grouped together the most commonly seen special needs. I’m ignoring whether they would have an IEP or 504, and instead just talking generally. Let’s look at these basic categories in alphabetical order.

(Don’t forget: if you want more information about homeschooling children with special needs, check out our special needs article archive.)


Autism Spectrum Disorder includes many different behavioral, social, emotional, and communication challenges. The cause is still not 100% clear, since children with autism have such a wide range of symptoms. However, the current leading theory is that a range of factors, when combined, lead to developmental disorders. 

Children with autism might struggle to interact appropriately with peers, regulate their emotions and impulses, cope with sensory under/overload, and handle transitions or change. Autistic children can have mild to severe cases, and they are usually diagnosed in preschool or early elementary school. Generally, the earlier a child is diagnosed and gets interventions, the better. 


One of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in kids today is Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. According to the CDC, around 9% of children have ADHD in America. 

ADHD can present with many different symptoms, such as trouble with focusing, impulse control, time management, hyperactivity, and working memory. Like Autism, there’s no one cause of ADHD, but many different factors including genetics and environment play a role. 

Want more info on ADHD?

Emotional/Mental Illness

Types of special needs

Any mental illness that makes learning challenging counts. This category can include MANY disorders, but some of the most common ones are: 

  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Oppositional defiance disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia

A child might have one of the above disorders, but not require special education. Remember, in order for a child to receive special education, their disorder needs to really impact their learning. This might mean a child has awful fears associated with school. It also could mean they struggle to work or socialize appropriately. For many children, it simply means learning is difficult, but not because of low intelligence.

Gifted & Talented

This one might surprise people, but it often counts as a type of special need in the school setting. A child who tests high on the gifted and talented exams isn’t just a smart kid. They actually are so above their peers (in one or more areas) that they require a specialized education. Without intervention, gifted students often act out in class, underperform, or even drop out of school due to boredom and frustration. 

Intellectual Disability

Types of special needs

Intellectual disability is a huge catch-all term for any disorder that severely impacts cognitive ability. Kids with an intellectual disability have an IQ under 70 and have a hard time with self-care, social interactions, and even just being safe. The two most common intellectual disorders are Down’s Syndrome and Fragile X syndrome, and chromosomal defects cause both of them.

Specific Learning Disabilities

Statistically, you probably already know someone with a learning disability. Of the types of special needs, a learning disability affects up to 5% of children, and 38% of kids with special needs have a learning disability. What’s more, learning disabilities have a genetic component, so there are many adults with them, too!

Reading, Writing, and Mathematical difficulties are the three largest categories. Like developmental disorders, those with learning disabilities can thrive with early diagnosis and interventions. 

Want more information about learning disabilities?

Multiple Disabilities

This term is reserved for kids with truly serious and complicated medical, cognitive, and sensory challenges. Simply put, someone with multiple disabilities has two or more types of special needs. (Another child who has, say, a learning disability and ADHD would usually be classed as whichever impacted their learning more.)

Children with multiple disabilities might rely heavily on technology. This might mean a wheelchair, a communication device, or even things like an electronic pointing devices.

Orthopedic Impairment

Children with orthopedic impairments are often visibly different from other children. They might require a wheelchair, struggle with muscle tone, or have hyper-mobile joints. An example of this might be cerebral palsy. 

Other Health Impairments (OHI)

Of the types of special needs, this one is the broadest. In the terms of an IEP, there are only a few disorders that count under the Other Health Impairment umbrella. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

“In order to meet the eligibility criteria for OHI, the student must have a health condition which limits strength, alertness, or vitality, and has an adverse effect on the child’s educational performance.”

This means many disorders and medical problems can qualify a student for an OHI designation. They can be acute problems, like cancer, or chronic diseases, like asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, or sickle cell anemia. This category includes children with ADHD if they struggle with alertness enough.

Sensory/Communication Disabilities

This category of special needs includes deafness, blindness, speech impediments, visual or hearing impairments, and more. 

Even low-levels of sensory disabilities might qualify a child for learning accommodations. Examples might include large-print books, microphones for the teacher to wear, or a sign language interpreter. 

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Like you’d guessed based on the name, Traumatic Brain Injuries are caused by external blows, jolts, or punctures to the head. Because our brains are so sensitive, even small traumas can have long-lasting consequence. 

Children with TBI might struggle with anything from coordination, to speech, to seizures, to emotional problems. 

Did you go through the list and but didn’t see something that fit? Don’t worry! If you think your child is having difficulties in a classroom due to no fault of their own, ask for help! 

And if your school isn’t being responsive, it IS possible to give your special needs child a fantastic education at home. If you want to learn more, be sure to check out our homeschooling starter workbook, Ready Set Homeschool!

For more information about special needs: