Special Educational Needs & Disability — What does it mean?


The term ‘Special Educational Needs’ has a legal definition. Students with special educational needs all have learning differences or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn or access education than most students of the same age.

These students may need extra or different help from that given to other students of the same age. The law says that students do not have learning difficulties just because their first language is not English. Of course some of these students may have learning difficulties as well.

There are no hard and fast categories of Special Educational Needs. Each student is unique and there is a wide spectrum of special educational needs that are frequently interrelated, although there are also specific needs that usually relate to particular types of impairment. Students will have needs and requirements that by and large fall into at least one of four areas, although many students will have interrelated needs. These needs should be taken into account when planning your lessons as they can impact considerably on the student’s ability to function, learn and succeed. The four areas of “Need” are:

Communication and Interaction:

  • Speech, Language & Communication Needs (SLCN): Young people with speech, language and communication needs cover the whole range of ability. They may have difficulty in understanding and/or making others understand information conveyed through spoken language. Their acquisition of speech and their oral language skills may be significantly behind their peers. Their speech may be poor or unintelligible. They may experience problems in articulation and the production of speech sounds. They may have a severe stammer. Young people with language impairments find it hard to understand and/or use words in context. They may use words incorrectly with inappropriate grammatical patterns, have reduced vocabulary or find it hard to recall words and express ideas. They may also hear or see a word but not be able to understand its meaning or have trouble getting others to understand what they are trying to say.
  • Hearing impairment – use of an EDULINK see also details below in “Sensory”
  • Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD): – four times as many boys as girls. At one end of the spectrum area young people of normal intelligence, with mild autistic tendencies, perhaps seen by others as “slightly odd‟; at the other, are those with profound learning difficulties Autism is characterised by the following “triad of impairments‟:
  • Difficulties with Social Interaction – unable to understand other people‟s feelings and behaviour; may seem aloof, and behave in an „odd‟ way – using inappropriate language, touching other people inappropriately, or being aggressive; unable to „read‟ social situations and behave appropriately; can become distressed and confused
  • Poor Communication Skills – in terms of both verbal and non-verbal communication (e.g. eye contact, facial expression, gesture and body language). Language used may be repetitive and/or learned phrases. Some young people may appear to have good expressive language, but still have difficulties in understanding – especially where figurative language is used. Sarcasm and irony are generally not understood.
  • Inability to use Imagination – this affects every area of thought; language and behaviour. Young people may develop repetitive and/or obsessive behaviours and are often more interested in, and comfortable with, objects than people. They need a strong sense of routine in order to make sense of their world, and interruptions and changes can cause distress.
  • In addition, these young people may have sensitivity to noise, smell, taste, touch or visual stimuli.
  • Asperger Syndrome: is a condition affecting those at the high ability end of the Autistic Spectrum. Young people may speak (often in a monotonous or exaggerated tone of voice) knowledgably and at great length about topics which interest them, but have significant difficulties with social communication, turn taking and joining in. Some may have OCD traits e.g. not touching objects without them being vigorously cleaned.

Cognition and Learning: Thinking and Understanding

  • Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD): such as dyslexia – literacy; dyspraxia – movement; dysfluency – stammering / sequencing; problem with short term memory; understanding and responding to the verbal communication of others; processing information and responding appropriately (semantic pragmatic disorder)
  • Moderate Learning Difficulty (MLD): Young people with moderate learning difficulties will have attainments significantly below expected levels in most areas of the curriculum, despite appropriate interventions. Their needs will not be able to be met by normal differentiation and the flexibilities of the National Curriculum. They have much greater difficulty than their peers in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills and in understanding concepts. They may also have associated speech and language delay, low self-esteem, low levels of concentration and under-developed social skills.
  • Severe Learning Difficulty (SLD): Young people with severe learning difficulties have significant intellectual or cognitive impairments. This has a major effect on their ability to participate in the school curriculum without support. They may also have difficulties in mobility and co-ordination, communication and perception and the acquisition of self-help skills. They will need support in all areas of the curriculum and they may also require teaching of self-help, independence and social skills.

Behavioural, Emotional and Social Development / Emotional & Behavioural Difficulties:

  • The best definition that is applicable to most young people with BESD / EBD would be that owing to an emotional difficulty or disturbance they refuse or cannot make full use of the educational opportunities offered to them and are consequently difficult or challenging to manage
  • The spectrum of BESD / EBD is wide and ranges from deviant to disturbed, from straightforward naughtiness through to quite complex psychiatric disorders and from nuisance value to challenging in the extreme. The revised SEN Code of Practice (DfES 2001b) Section 7:60 provides a protracted definition including the terms withdrawn, isolated, disruptive, disturbing, hyperactive, lacking concentration and presenting challenging behaviour.
  • In addition to this the majority of these young people have parallel difficulties within their families and communities. They are frequently 2at the end of the line‟ in one or more areas of their lives. Looked After Young people, namely those involved with or under the care of Social Services are a major group in any specialist provision for BESD / EBD pupils. The lack of a stable home environment is also becoming an increasingly common feature, particularly in cases of more complex difficulties.
  • It is important to point out, however, that not all young people with BESD / EBD have these difficulties because of their family background or social environment. BESD / EBD is also associated with some genetic or biological conditions – such as Attachment Disorders, Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome, Fragile X, Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome – the symptoms and effects of which may cause the child frustration and distress leading to the development of EBD.

Sensory and / or Physical:

  • Most young people will experience some level of physical or sensory difficulty at some time in their lives – whether it’s a broken leg, ‘glue ear’ or discomfort brought on by a medical condition. Teachers have to be aware of these conditions and how to alleviate any adverse effects on pupils’ learning.
  • When difficulties are significant and long term, young people are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act which makes it unlawful to treat them less favourably than their non-disabled peers and to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that they are not put at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to pupils who are not disabled.
  • Visual impairment (VI) – Young people with VI cover the whole ability range. For educational purposes, a child is considered to be visually impaired if they require adaptations to their environment or specific differentiation of learning materials in order to access the curriculum.
  • Hearing Impairment (HI): Young people with a hearing impairment range from those with a mild hearing loss to those who are profoundly deaf. They cover the whole ability range. For educational purposes, young people are regarded as having a hearing impairment if they require hearing aids: (e.g. use of EDULINK), adaptations to their environment and/or particular teaching strategies in order to access the concepts and language of the curriculum. A number of young people with a hearing impairment also have an additional disability or learning difficulty
  • Physical Disability (PD): There is a wide range of physical disabilities and young people cover the whole ability range.

Some young people are able to access the curriculum and learn effectively without additional educational provision. They have a disability but do not have a special educational need. For others the impact on their education may be severe.