Seeking Special Services for Your Child

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Do you suspect that your child might have special needs? Life as MOM contributor Jessie Leigh offers some advice for parents who are seeking special services for their children.

Seeking Special Services for Your Child

photo source: JessieLeigh

When we have children, we have so many things to wonder about and decide. What color will his eyes be? Will she like soccer? What should our birth plan look like? What type of schooling will we choose? It can be an exciting, and sometimes confusing, time.

One thing very few of us consider when we welcome a new child into our lives is this:

Will he or she have special needs?

The fact is, upwards of 15-20% of all children will have a special need uncovered at some point before the age of 18. If this number seems shockingly high to you, you’re not alone. The numbers were significantly lower back when we were in school. This is not because more and more children have “problems” these days; rather, it is an indication of better and earlier detection and diagnosis.

This is a good thing because it can result in our children getting better and earlier help and services to meet their needs. Also, because so very many children are receiving therapies and support in one area or another, there is little to no stigma attached to it.

Still, it is probably safe to say that most parents do not dream about their children having special needs. Of all the hopes and ambitions we have for our little ones, needing therapy or extra help is probably not in the mix.

So, what should you do if you, or someone else with a large role in your child’s life, suspects a delay or difficulty? What steps should you take and what should you expect to happen?

Before the age of three:

Most of this article will focus on school-aged children, but, if your child is not yet three years old, you’ll need to contact your state’s early intervention program. These go by different names from state-to-state, but they all serve the same purpose: they provide therapies and support to children between birth and age three.

Preschool and beyond:

Once your child reaches age three, and up until they turn (at least) eighteen, therapies and interventions are provided through the public school system. This is true even if your child does not attend the public school. Homeschooled children and those attending private or parochial schools are still entitled to evaluations and services through the community in which their parents pay taxes.

Many children are first identified as having speech, motor, or developmental delays in preschool. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most obvious is that, for many children, this is the age when someone other than a primary caregiver really needs to understand the child’s words and needs. While I was certainly aware that my child who was non-verbal until nearly three was delayed, I truly did not struggle with interpreting his needs. People outside the home, however, had a very difficult time. Preschool often uncovers this.


photo source: Janel

If you suspect a delay:

If you suspect your child might be struggling, whether it be with academics, speech, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, or something else entirely, it’s important you let the school know as soon as possible.

I always encourage people to talk to the teacher first so you can gauge his or her feelings about it, but then — and this is important — make your concerns known in writing. We’ve been very fortunate to have a very supportive school and our verbal concerns have been taken seriously. Nonetheless, there are laws in every state in place to protect your child’s right to “a free and appropriate public education,” but these laws are contingent upon your making your concerns and requests on paper.

Again, state laws vary, but your school district has very specific guidelines as to how long they have to respond to your letter. Failure to comply with these can result in serious penalties and the withholding of funding; as a result, most take these guidelines very seriously.

What you should expect:

If you put your concerns in writing, you should expect the school to contact you. They will likely schedule a meeting to which you, the other parent, an administrator, the classroom teacher (if appropriate), and relevant therapists will be invited.

A plan will be put into to place to evaluate your child for any concerns you have documented and a follow-up meeting will be scheduled to review the professionals’ findings.

My child was labeled “special needs.” Isn’t that bad?

If your child qualifies for services, the team will develop an IEP or “individualized education plan.” This will be just what is sounds like– a plan to meet your child’s individual needs and provide the therapies and put into place the support systems to help him or her succeed.

Your opinion should be sought; the team should take into account what you hope to see for your child. You are absolutely a part of your child’s educational team, and, while you shouldn’t expect to be able to give out a whole laundry list of demands, your questions or concerns with the suggested plan should be addressed and considered.

Do not be alarmed to have your child labeled “special needs.” As I mentioned earlier, more and more children have needs uncovered each year. It is truly not a bad thing, nor is it necessarily a permanent thing. I have a child who, at three, was considered “extremely delayed.” By age six, he was released from special education, and we were told he was “severely gifted.” Development and learning are fluid and labels are ever-changing. Try to embrace it as a good thing, since it affords your child legal protection in terms of supportive education.

My child didn’t qualify. Is that bad?

If the team evaluating your child comes back and tells you that your child doesn’t qualify for services, you really need to get real with yourself about how you feel about that. Are you relieved because you just weren’t sure and now you feel confident he’s on track? Are you dismayed because you were positive she was dyslexic and they seem to be minimizing your concerns? Are you uneasy with their conclusions because it just doesn’t feel right?

Those are all valid responses and you should pay attention to your gut. You have the right to express dissatisfaction with the findings if that’s truly how you feel. Inquire about additional testing. See if there is a parent advocate in your town who would be able to help you understand all your rights. You don’t have to just shrug and say, “oh, well” if you feel it’s not accurate.

Finally, even if the team determines that services aren’t required at this point, know that this whole process wasn’t a total loss. Having your concerns already documented will help you in the future if you still feel your child needs additional support.

Have you sought special services for your child? What challenges and successes did you have in the process?

– A mother of three, including a 24 week preemie, JessieLeigh is a determined advocate for even the tiniest of babies. She can be found celebrating life’s (sometimes unexpected) miracles and blessings at Parenting Miracles.

About Jessica Fisher

I believe you can get great meals on the table -- and still keep that pretty smile on your face.

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  1. So good that you posted this subject. Although autism isn’t the only special needs catagory, it’s a big chunk. I have a 14 year old grandson who has autism, high functioning. We’ve had to navigate the special services road since age 2. My advice to anyone who thinks there “just might be a slight issue here with my child” to begin right looking into how to get help ASAP. I recall saying to a therapist “but what if he gets a diagnosis of autism, but really doesn’t have autism” and her answer was “he needs to be taught the way children who do have autism are taught at any rate.” Turns out that she was 100% correct. Never wait to see how the child is going to do.

    • I agree, Andrea– early intervention and help is so important! And you’re right– the autism spectrum is vast and wide and encompasses many special needs.

  2. I have 11 children. 4 of them has early intervention for physical theray and 1 had it for speech therapy- all for only a few months. We had a wonderful experience with it. My son was given an iep for reading comprehension in 4th grade. By 5th grade I was told he was no longer receiving special help because he was doing well on his own, but they would leave the iep in place just in case. This was not an issue until I started homeschooling again because that meant that- even though he didn’t need it- I would need to have a licensed special ed. teacher approve his reading objectives every year. I had such a hard time finding someone to do it, and it was such a stressful time. We later moved to a new school district where they told me that they had no record of him having an iep, so I didn’t have to do that there- I was so relieved. However, we moved back to our original district a year later because the town we had moved to was filled with drugs. By now my son wad in 7th grade and wanted to try public school again. Of course, they found the record of his iep again and put it in place as needed again. Eventually my son started bringing home work that I would give to my third grader, so that was when I decided that enough was enough. I called the district and told them to remove his iep. He had gotten straight A’s, and I knew he didn’t need it. The Weeks went by and, as I requested, he was kept in the main class. His former special ed. teacher called me to arrange for me to sign the removal paperwork; she didn’t like the fact that I wad removing it and told me that my son was still not on grade level. I informed her that I would be homeschooling him again, and I wanted the iep gone. A few days later, I received his iep-less report card- all A’s and one C- in GYM! So much for being below grade level. The moral of this story is that since schools get government funding for kids with special needs, some schools will keep it on their record EVEN IF THEY NO LONGER NEED IT! As a parent, you DO have the right to remove it at any time.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Shelly– it is SO important that parents are aware of their rights (and, of course, responsibilities) in this situation.

  3. Lucinés Lugo says


    I have. My son is diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder which affected his speech development, not to mention his coordination. It was discovered whe he turned two at his day care center, and we started with the early intervention program. I enrolled him at 27 months in the Department Education Special Needs Program with a speech delay because SPD is not a known disorder and therefore he didn’t qualify under it for therapies. Turns out, that I am still fighting because they started him on his speech therapy but they misplaced his referral for ocupational therapy. It is very frustrating because they told me that enrolling him guaranteed his therapies. But I have to stay on top of things daily because is not things just don’t happen.

    • Oh, I must confess that I am SHOCKED that they’ve said sensory processing disorder is not a known disorder. I know many children, in several different states, receiving services based on that diagnosis alone. How frustrating that you’ve had to fight so much. Sadly, I hear too many stories of parents having to do just that. 🙁

  4. My oldest is 8 and we started early intervention when he was 20 months or so and it was a pain to find a speech therapist for most of the time he had EI he was only getting OT and PT and than before he turned 3 we had tested for autism 2 different doctors and both said autism than it was time for preschool and I knew he was going to need a small class so we looked at a non integrated preschool but they weren’t sure if they were going to be able to get him into the summer program and I really didn’t want him to go 3 months without any services so on to his first IEP meeting and I tried to explain to them that I wanted him into some kind of program and if it was a normal program I would want an aid well thats all the heard instead of I want him in something anything to get the services and than we would do non integrated for the fall well it was a fight the whole meeting but I fought hard and he was able to get into the smaller sized preschool and he did 2 years there and made great progress but still needed a lot of work so for K thru 3rd he has been in a special school that is very good for him and hopefully one day he will be able to transition to a typical school

    One thing I will say is don’t just given into the schools if you think your child needs something get an advocate to help you.

    • I’m sorry to hear it was such a fight, but I’m glad you stood your ground, Kasee. Having an advocate can make such a huge difference. A lot of people don’t even realize they’re an option or available. We, of course, need to advocate, too, but it’s great to have someone knowledgable in your corner.

  5. I have been on both sides of this situation. I am a mother to a child who they wanted to test for a learning disability and I am also a special education teacher for k-4. I insisted my child was not LD. He was just a “late bloomer” in reading. The school didn’t fight me, he went on without testing but with some interventions. I’m happy to say that he is now in the high reading class in 5th grade. On the other side I also get so frustrated because I have multiple children who are not in “need of special services”. They just need someone to help them. Some parents fight to have their children placed so they (the parents) don’t have to put in the extra time. Don’t get me wrong, I love my students even the ones that I think are the products of poor parenting, but it is getting easier and easier for a parent to “push” to get their child into the program. I will work hard to help every child be as successful as they can be, I just wish those that don’t belong in this type of program could find help in a more appropriate program.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your perspective from both sides, Kathy– your input is super valuable. I, too, wish that more appropriate support systems and programs were available for children who don’t have actual delays or disabilities, but who would benefit from the extra help they may not be getting in the home.

  6. Don’t wait until age 3 if you suspect there is a problem. We started getting help while Matthew was still in the NICU. His social worker (assigned to him at birth) suggested we apply for help immediately. So he started physical therapy immediately and other therapy started in the next 6 months with speech therapy starting at 18 months. By age 3, my preemie was considered right on track with other 3 year olds. You can get your pediatrician to recommend testing that will be paid for through your health insurance, or if you are lucky, your state may pay for it. You need to be your child’s proactive advocate or pay someone to do it for you.

    • I agree, Susan. I think early intervention is super important! I do see a lot of cases where special needs are uncovered at 3 or 4, though, and I want people to know that that’s normal, too.

  7. Thank you for all this information but where do I start if I do homeschool. Do I still write a letter to the school in which my child would be enrolled if in public school?

    • I would contact HSLDA first and find out what your rights are. The link is here:

    • Jessica knows much more about homeschooling than I do, so I would trust her advice on that one. I truly am confident in saying that you are entitled to evaluation and services (if qualified), however. What steps you need to take may depend on your state and it looks like Jessica has provided a great link for that. (And, yes, most likely you will be writing to the superintendent’s office/spec ed coordinator of your school district.)

  8. Sometimes it will take an outside evaluation to convince the school there really is a problem. My 14 year old has dysgraphia, and sensory processing disorder. He can’t even tie his own shoes. But he gets As and Bs most of the time, so they kept saying that he wouldn’t qualify for anything. He’s not currently receiving services, but he does have a 504 to allow him to tack extra time on exams if needed. He was passing only because his teachers were already giving him extra time (which isn’t guaranteed when the teachers change!).

  9. I would say listen to your gut. My son has expressive speech delay and we got worried around a year old… Just wasn’t talking enough. We kept on asking physicians and everyone else and it was “fine.” Then age 2 rolled around and we finally got information on our county’s early childhood intervention.

    We all feel that if he had intervention about 6 months earlier things would be moving a lot faster right now (would have had the chance a few months earlier to get him to be more receptive to actually talking). We’re having the IEP meeting (he’s had an in home speech therapist once a week since February) in 2 weeks, and he’ll likely be placed in twice a week 2.5 hour pre-K with a speech pathologist. He’s improving a lot but it’s nearly impossible to understand him when he talks spontaneously (if he’s copying something you generally know what he’s saying!). But he’s started talking, which is a huge improvement. If I’d listened to what I knew as a parent, I don’t think we would have been quite so slow to get him help.

    I worry that because he’s behind on speech and that’s what we concentrate on, that he’ll get behind on other things. Every child is different though and I’m praying that he gets to go to pre-K (the alternative is 45 minutes of drills) to have the classroom setting and be able to develop in other areas he might be missing out on!

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