Diagnosis, Therapies, & Specialists
If you suspect your child may have a disability, it is important not to assume that you can address it yourself. Your child should be evaluated by a licensed health professional. While this process can have its own limitations and is not infallible, keep in mind that the goal of this process is to ensure that your child’s needs are identified and met. You should also be aware of the wide range of specialists available to help you ensure that your child’s needs are met.
Public schools are required by law to offer every child with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and are required to earmark at least some funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for students who are not enrolled in public schools. In practice, the amount of services public schools make available to homeschooled children varies substantially, both by state and by school district. While you may seek services through your local public schools, you should also become aware of the private resources that are available in your area to children with disabilities.
Seeking a Diagnosis
Knowing your child’s disability will help you understand their needs and how to help them. You may be your child’s parent, but you are probably not an expert on disability; by educating yourself and becoming knowledgeable about your child’s disability, you can improve the education you provide them and help your child achieve their full abilities. A diagnosis will also help your child (and you) access accommodations under the ADA, both now and in the future. Your child has a right to have their disability identified and evaluated.
Some home educators falsely claim that homeschooling makes identifying learning disabilities or behavioral or other conditions unnecessary, because a parent does not need a label to tailor homeschooling to their child. This view is mistaken. Fear of labels may stem from attaching a stigma to disability. If you have not already, please read our main page on disabilities, which covers disability theory and presents the social constructionist model of disability, which understands disability as a natural part of human variation and diversity.
While you may choose to have your child evaluated privately—your child’s pediatrician is usually a good place to start—public schools are also required under IDEA to offer free evaluations to homeschooled students who are suspected of having disabilities. You can learn how to request an evaluation under IDEA—including what the process looks like, and what language to use when you contact your child’s school—here.
Finding Therapists & Specialists
There are many services available for children with disabilities. What services your child needs will depend on their disability and needs. You should familiarize yourself with the types of therapies and specialists available for children with your child’s disabilities.
Here are a few of the services available:
- Psychologists. Professionals with a Ph.D. degree have conducted scholarly research and sometimes provide counseling services. If you can find a psychologist who has studied your child’s condition, they may be able to offer evidence-based information on how to manage it, as well as strategies for coping with difficulties your child may experience.
- Social workers. Professionals with an LCSW degree are licensed to provide counseling. Social workers receive training in psychology in order to help people deal with mental and emotional health challenges, but their training also focuses on practical adaptation and social factors that may be negatively affecting a person’s life.
- Speech-language pathologists. Professionals with a CCC-SLP licensure have expertise in how the brain and body interact to produce speech. If your child has difficulty speaking, a speech therapist can help identify why, and will use evidence-based practices to address the issue.
- Occupational therapists. Professionals licensed by the American Occupational Therapy Association are highly interdisciplinary and creative health care providers. Their role is to help your child figure out what they want to do, and then help them figure out how to do it with the abilities they have. They may be able to suggest assistive devices or technologies.
- Reading specialists. These certified teachers have special expertise and training in literacy instruction; they provide one-on-one assistance to children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
- Aides, interpreters, and other paraprofessionals. Licensed home health aides or personal care aides can provide one-on-one assistance to your child with their activities of daily living. Certified interpreters can accompany your D/deaf child to interpret for them. Qualified paraprofessionals can provide assistance in note-taking or behavioral reminders.
- Service animals. Service animals may benefit children with many different disabilities, including blind children, those who experience seizures, children with mental health disorders, etc.
- Medical providers. Many children with disabilities have co-occurring conditions that require medical care. People with disabilities are less likely to receive the proper care for their medical conditions since they may have difficulty articulating the problem; doctors may also incorrectly attribute a typical medical condition to a disability and fail to treat it (for example, a congenitally Deaf person may still suffer from an ear infection; a person with an intellectual disability may also have asthma). Children with disabilities should receive regular medical care from a licensed pediatrician or specialist who understands their disability.
- Support groups and mentorship. Support groups are essential for helping your disabled child feel like a person rather than a problem. Your child should have the opportunity to make friends with other children who share their disability, as well as to be mentored by adults who share their disability. These adults have a lifetime of intimate knowledge of navigating the world with their disability. You should recognize their expertise and lived experience, just as you recognize the expertise of professional health care providers.
In some cases, you may be able to access some of these services through your local school district. Parents of disabled homeschooled children should maintain an active relationship with the local school district in order to stay aware of what services may be available for their children. Some children who do not qualify for special education services under IDEA still qualify for a Section 504 Plan (see a point-by-point comparison here).
Many home educators also look for services through local rehabilitation or therapy centers, or through other private providers. You may find it useful to start by asking your child’s pediatrician for recommendations. In some cases, the cost of these services may be covered through your insurance, or your child may qualify for programs such as social security.
Therapists and other specialists will frequently show parents how they can work with their child at home, and some may even be willing to come to your home to work with your child. You and your child’s service providers are a team; all children, but especially children with disabilities, need multiple adults providing them with support and input.
Remember, your child’s disability is not something for you to “cure.” Disability is a form of natural human variation. Your goal should be to ensure that your disabled child has the opportunity to enjoy a full and decent life in conditions that ensure their dignity, promote self-reliance, and facilitate their active participation in the community. For more on the social constructionist model of disability, see our main page on disability here.
Don’t forget to read the other articles in this series!
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