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Special Needs: A United Front

Dr. Stanley Greenspan formed an interdisciplinary council to join the wide range of professionals who care for children with special needs. Here, he answered questions about the group.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2

"Try to figure out how each child is unique in how he or she interacts with others — and then tailor the educational approach to the child's profile."

How would you describe the philosophy behind your organization?

Most children with special needs have complex problems with development — with their motor skills, with their cognitive development, with the way they process language.

Regardless of the reason for the special need, most children have problems in a few of these areas.

And typically, when it comes to exchanging research and clinical information, most professionals are part of a team — you'll have a speech pathologist, occupational and physical therapists, social workers, pediatric neurologists, educators, and so on — and they all tend to communicate within their own specialty. There's less sharing of knowledge across the different disciplines. As a result, a pediatrician may be excellent but may not know much about occupational therapy. Early childhood and special educators may know a great deal about working with children in the classroom but not much about child psychiatry.

So what we've done is organize a group to bring together leaders in different disciplines with a goal of fostering a more effective exchange across disciplines. With a better exchange of information, we can push new knowledge forward. To better serve the child, we need to look at all parts of the child.

What are a few specific things the council is working on?

Another goal is to create more effective guidelines for assessment, diagnosis, and intervention that would help move the field along. Each team tends to diagnose using its own concepts and strategies for intervention. The field requires more generic guidelines that would work for everyone but, at the same time, allow for individual approaches.

We've also created the Journal of Developmental and Learning Disorders as a forum for exchanging experience and research findings, and we welcome submissions or descriptions of innovative programs. 

And we'll have regular scientific meetings. Our first one took place in November, and it brought together more than 1,100 people from all the different disciplines.

What were some highlights from the conference?

One interesting thing that took place was a panel on two very different approaches to special needs. I spoke about Floor Time, which is an emotional approach. And Dr. Ivar Lovaas, a psychology professor at UCLA, spoke on the behavioral approach. Our philosophies are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and we tend to look at things very differently. But we do have certain things in common, such as the fact that both of us have achieved positive results even with children who have very complex needs.

So on this panel, we each presented our findings and then had a discussion. This was the first time these two approaches ever came together, which was interesting to the audience, and we were able to present criteria for teachers and families on when it's best to use which approach.

The conference also featured presentations on everything from new ways to enhance auditory processing to the latest biomedical research to some new educational approaches.

Did anyone at the conference identify any new special needs?

We're not seeing entirely new special needs. But when we look at children, we're now seeing features of their challenges that we hadn't seen before. In other words, we are better able to subclassify a particular special need.

People may think that all children who are autistic have the same problems. But within a broad disorder, we see a wide range in children's abilities. This is interesting because it gives us a way to identify special needs more subtly — and then to treat children with different educational approaches.

What's the most important thing for teachers who deal with special needs to remember right now?

To try to figure out how each child is unique in terms of how his or her nervous system works and how he or she relates and interacts with others — and then to tailor the educational program to the child's profile.

For example, unless all the children with special needs in a particular classroom are verbal and can have conversations with others in a group, group time is not a good use of the children's time. That's too advanced for them. These children have to work much more on basic interaction and basic communication. They graduate into group time as they become more verbal.

That's of course a very simple example, but it illustrates the fundamental point we're trying to address through the council: Each child is different, and each child needs something different from us.

For more information, visit Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders.

The late Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., was clinical professor of psychiatry, behavioral science, and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C., as well as a lecturer and author.

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