Are Too Many Children Being Diagnosed WIth Special Needs?

As many as half the children identified as having special educational needs (SEN) in the UK are, according to a report from School Action, incorrectly diagnosed and rather in need of better teaching. 

The September 14th Guardian notes that the number of children said to have ‘mild’ special needs has increased from 14% to 18% in the past seven years. In some cases, the report described 15-16 year old students who were said to have special needs as rather being ‘at risk of falling short of their GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education] grades.’ Due to receiving the special needs classification, the students received ‘additional mentoring from senior staff’ and improved in their schoolwork. It is suggested that, rather than wrongly classify, or ‘label,’ students as having special needs, it’s suggested that better teaching is needed.

If it were only so simple.

This is nothing new, this claim that more students are receiving diagnoses of learning disabilities, ADHD, autism— to the extent that such a diagnosis is ‘trendy‘—not because they actually have some neurological or other conditions but because of poor teaching (on the part of the teachers) or lack of effort, ability, and so forth (on the part of the students).  These days, it might seem more the norm, or nothing so remarkable, for a child to have an ‘alphabet soup’ of disorders (ADHD, ADD, PDD-NOS, ED, LD, SPD, and on and on) and to require ‘services,’ in the form of speech therapy, occupational therapy, and more. We live in an age, that is, when it’s more common to ask ‘what’s your child’s diagnosis‘ than not. 

In the case of autism—the neurodevelopmental disability that my son has—the past decade has been rife with speculation about whether or not autism is being over-diagnosed or misdiagnosed, or whether more children are being diagnosed with autism (once thought a rare disorder, it is now estimated to occur in one out of every 100 children in the US) because we know a lot more about autism. For instance, we don’t consider it ‘childhood schizophrenia,’ as we once did: Compare the changes in the DSM criteria for autism to get an idea of how our understanding of what autism is has evolved and become more and more precise (and this is due to change again, as the DSM undergoes its fifth revision). Further, diagnoses of mental retardation have been shown to have declined in the same period as diagnoses of autism have increased.

And just to muddy the waters a bit more, a post from my friend Liz Ditz in which she points out that learning disabilities are more likely to be misdiagnosed, and a post from a mother of a child on the autism spectrum who notes racial disparities in special education.

My own son’s learning challenges are quiet significant, to the point that he is is now attending a center specifically for autistic students. (I went into a lot more detail about this on an interview this morning over at BlogTalkRadio with the International Coalition for Autism and All Abilities.) Are too many students these days said to have so-called ‘milder’ challenges with their learning, such learning disabilities and ADD? 

Or have we got so caught up in figuring out what diagnosis a student has that we are no longer focusing on the essentials—good teaching by committed, well-trained, engaging individuals?

Photo by Editor B.


William C
William Cabout a month ago

Thanks for the information.

W. C
W. Cabout a month ago

Thank you for caring.

Frank He
Past Member 5 years ago

As someone who is being educated as an intervention specialist, this is not necessarily a matter of bad teaching. Our teaching methods have been the same throughout history and have not caught up to today's students' needs. Unfortunately, in order to receive any intervention plan and certain accommodations such as extended test time, quiet testing centers, tests read aloud, and so on and so forth, you have to have a diagnosis. Many parents push for multiple diagnoses for their children so that they can receive OT, PT, SLT, and other related services, mostly provided by the school in accordance with IDEA. Otherwise the outright cost for these services out of pocket are astronomical! As parents, teachers, and family members, we need to work past our stigma of having a child with a disability and understand that they able to achieve great things, but learn differently from their peers. Unfortunately, lawmakers have made obtaining services for students a challenge and multiple hoops have to be jumped through in order to be able to provide these services to our students. Most parents that I have witnessed in the IEP meetings I have sat in on, have pushed for their children to receive multiple diagnoses from their physicians so that their child can receive the appropriate services to fit their needs and we can help implement a plan to intervene on a child's current curriculum plan, tweak it, and help this child succeed. As an individual who was diagnosed with Type 1 ADHD (it

Simone Meiszner
Simone Meiszner6 years ago

My daughter spent a lifetime in special needs and she needs educating after a recent brain scan revealed she didn't have what she was orignally diangosed with which was Global Delay Development. I am now wondering how many others are walking around with the wrong diagnosis. I am fighting for change and am fighting the cuts too. Please read my blog as her case is hopefully going legal and she is just an example of many.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

if there are no mental disorders or disablity, then everyone is a special snowflake. jerk snowflakes, lazy snowlfakes, heartless snowflakes, evil snowflakes.
is it wrong to make fun of anyone? you can bash social emept people all you want. if a book says it has a reason, you can't tell them "try harder, suck it in and grow a spine and a heart".

overly sensitive people are just crybabies and people can't handle stress well.

they are possibly being over diagnosed in a copout to not fix a problem or look into it.

so you people here, some C2 members don't thing GAD or depression exist? MPD isn't a disorder and Narcissistic personality disorder is not real either.

just few people as characters then, and not something from DSM. replace a "disorder" with a "trope"

Simone M.
Simone Meiszner7 years ago

My daughter is 23 years of age and spent her life is Special education. I don't blame the teachers as many are not trained in teaching special needs. I blame government. The pressure on teachers to produce results when they do not have enough help.

In 2008 my daughters life crashed. Everything went wrong and I pushed for a re diagnosis of my daughters conditon which was Global Delay developement. One of the reasons was because I had to get her a private teacher but could only afford 2 years and she had started doing some advanced work whilst at school she could not do her tables..
In 2008 I handed over a report stating the education problems my daughter had. I thought I would try and highlight real life but in fact nobody was interested. They buried my daughters problems until I finally started a complaint this year. We finally found she was misdiagnosed and has a conditon called turner syndrome... I still believe she is more capable then what was achieved through her school life but her only way is one to one teaching which we can not afford.
I have also spoken to many who feel the support in higher education is not enough and they continue to fail. We are failing these children and although governemtn recongises some problems they tend to then help children and forget the ones that have missed out on chances and have now become adults with no job prospects. There is some hel put there but lets face it how many are employed who have a learning disability. Learning disa

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago

If teachers are allowed to teach each child as an individual instead of having to lump them all into a collective category perhaps these overused diagnosis would lessen. If a child does not catch on as quickly as some others He MUST be slow. People learn in many different ways- hearing, seeing, doing, etc. Teaching to the masses will always leave someone out.
Let's get back to teaching the child and not the group. Teachers and students need time to go over material several different ways if needed. If times tables have worked all over the world for centuries why are our students now being asked to do sets only. If a student does "old multiplication" they are penalized for not showing their work. These students are placed outside the group and labeled by the school. Not because they didn't get the right answer but because they didn't get the right answer PROPERLY.
Over diagnosis is dangerous because it diverts funds and services from the people who really need them.
Schools get extra money for special education so they are reluctant to remove labels from students thereby loseing funds.
Children are the pawns in this game and I truly wish someone would end this.

Casey Loufek
Casey Loufek7 years ago

Deborah, thank you so much for pointing that out. Psychiatry is not science or psychology, the profession is closer to a social worker or bureaucrat in means of operation. Diseases do not magically change based on whether they were diagnosed before or after an individual is 18, but they do according to the DSM.

Still just because they didn't have the concept doesn't mean the Japanesse didn't have issues with depression. Look at their suicide rates.

Almost all of these categories are slightly arbitrary. There aren't hard lines in nature like the ones we create in our minds. The changing in diagnosis over the years is as much do to changing attitudes as changing knowledge. The reason we are seeing so many of these "disorders" is because our society is becoming more and more unnaturally structured at the same time we are putting more and more effort into understanding behavioral issues.

Children now have more leeway and choices in their life but they also have many more choices to make and much more to do. Free time and chores have been replaced with mountains of homework and extracurricular activities. Parents won't let their children play outside because the media has convinced them everyone is a predator. We aren't living in a remotely natural system and many won't cope adequately.

All children are special needs children. In another society our ADHD children might blend in with the majority completely. We make exceptions when we should be changing the rules.

Maryl R.
Maryl R7 years ago

I think parents neeed to spend more time with their children when they are young and not just put them in front of a tv for hours and ignore them. When their children become unruly parents think there is something wrong with the children and want a medical diagnosis so they are not to blame.

Ronnie M.
Ronnie Mekler7 years ago

I'm just thankful that special needs get attention at all. Would it be such a crime if kids (or adults) who don't otherwise require special needs attention get it? My daughter did and does need that attention and had to wait 18 years to be recognized as meeting the standards. Let's worry more about getting out there at all than about getting out there too much!