What Is a Special Needs Child? Definition and Financial Resources

A special needs child is a youth who has been determined to require special attention and specific necessities that other children do not. The state may declare this status for the purpose of offering benefits and assistance for the child’s well-being and growth. Special needs can also be a legal designation, particularly in the adoption and foster care community, wherein the child and guardian receive support to help them both lead productive lives.

Key Takeaways

  • The definition of special needs pertaining to a child includes a wide variety of conditions including physical ailments, learning disabilities, and terminal illness.
  • Parents and guardians of special needs children usually receive tax credits or deductions to help offset the cost of raising a special needs child.
  • Some special needs children are able to go to public schools that offer a wide range of educational and emotional support programs, such as occupational therapy and one-on-one teacher aides in the classroom.

Understanding the Meaning of Special Needs Child

The guardians of special needs children typically receive some sort of additional tax credit or deduction to address the additional costs and efforts that providing for child care and well-being may require.

What Qualifies as a Special Need?

A variety of conditions and impairments can be classified as special needs. They can include chronic and terminal illnesses, physical impairments, and cognitive or psychiatric issues.

The assistance and medical attention that elevating the quality of life for special needs children may require can result in long-term and escalating costs. The extent of the child’s condition may call for far-reaching medical support to allow the child to live and thrive. For example, a child with a debilitating or life-threatening condition that is permanent could require constant medical support throughout their lives.

They may need to be monitored on a regular basis in case their ailments become exacerbated. Support equipment may be needed to provide the child with mobility around the residence, and the procurement of support animals such as specially trained dogs may also be needed.

A special needs child may have a life-threatening condition or severe learning disabilities. Either way, they are a child that requires special attention and care that other children do not.

Special Considerations

A special needs child may require alternative approaches to education that not only accommodate their conditions but also work toward creating ways for them to further their own capacity to learn and develop.

For instance, a child with impaired physical mobility or challenges communicating through traditional verbal cues may need to be trained in other ways, and they may also need training in how to apply those skills in the classroom and real-world settings.

For instances in which a special needs child has cognitive impairments, their education may require expertise in addressing such issues and finding methods for connecting with them. Some examples of this can include taking substantially more time and effort to ensure they can not only understand the lesson but also advance to another stage of learning.

Though public education is open to all students, not all teachers are trained to present lessons in ways that speak to these needs. This may lead to special needs children being taught privately, in classes or schools dedicated to addressing those needs.

What Financial Help is Available for Parents of Special Needs Children?

There are a number of government programs intended to ease the financial burden of supporting a special needs child. Special needs children are eligible for subsidized healthcare programs such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). There are also programs that offer direct payments or assistance with securing food and shelter, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). There are also grants available from various nonprofits that can help offset costs.

Are Children With Special Needs Eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

Children with special needs that are under the age of 18 can qualify for SSI if they meet several parameters based on their income level and the type of disability. Payments may vary from state to state, and conditions are reevaluated every three years in most cases. After the child turns 18, they may be eligible for SSI disability payments but would be evaluated differently.

How Can You Build a Financial Plan for Children with Special Needs?

Though predicting what care will cost in the future is uncertain at best, parents can open a special needs trust that will allow parents or loved ones to contribute financially to a fund that can be disbursed for costs such as medical expenses, caretakers, or transportation. The important detail about a special needs trust is that the money held there will not affect any public assistance programs that the child may receive. Special needs trusts are overseen by a fiduciary.

Combined with programs such as SSI, grant programs, and nutritional and healthcare programs, parents can build a sustainable plan for their child's care.

How Do ABLE Accounts Benefit a Special Needs Child?

Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) plans or 529As are tax-advantaged plans that are the equivalent of a college savings plan for special needs children under the age of 26. Money deposited into an ABLE account can be invested, growing tax-free, and be used for qualifying expenses.

Like the special needs trust, ABLE plans do not affect the child's ability to qualify for SSI or other public assistance programs. Unlike a special needs trust, there are deposit limits on an ABLE account—$15,000 per year, with a cap that varies by state, but averages out to $300,000 per child.

Can a Child Have Both an ABLE and a Special Needs Trust?

Yes, a special needs child can have both an ABLE and a special needs trust. Because there are specific qualifying expenses that may be paid with each type of account, having both accounts open and funded can be beneficial. Because there is no upper limit on a special needs trust, that offers more leeway for parents securing their child's future beyond them, but ABLE plans may cover basic living expenses such as rent, whereas a special needs trust may not.

Is "Special Needs" Insensitive?

Some disability advocates vehemently oppose the term "special needs," and would eliminate it from American speech if they could. Groups such as National Council on Disabilities say avoiding the term "disabled" only leads to stigmatization

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Special Needs Alliance. "Government Programs for Children with Disabilities," Accessed Sept. 19, 2021.

  2. Debt.org, "Financial Assistance for Special Needs," Accessed Sept. 19, 2021.

  3. Social Security Administration. "Benefits For Children With Disabilities," Accessed Sept. 19, 2021.

  4. Parenting Special Needs. "ABLE Account or Special Needs Trust: How to Decide?" Accessed Sept. 19, 2021.

  5. NPR. "Disabled: Just #SayTheWord." Accessed November 28, 2021.