Special Olympics participant runs during a track and field event.

Military Families: How You Can Advocate for Your Child with Special Needs

All parents advocate – speak on behalf of, even fight for – their child’s needs to teachers, doctors and others so their child can grow up happy and successful. When that military child has special needs, that advocacy grows to include learning laws, finding resources and even representing your child to special program administrators, school boards and others.

When you are an effective advocate, you can maneuver through additional steps or necessary paperwork to get your military family support that otherwise would seem elusive. Here are some ways to help win your case for resources.

Gather information, gain knowledge for military family support

WEBINAR: Moving With an IEP

Military families may face challenges when moving with a child who has an Individualized Education Program. Learn the steps the new school takes when your child enrolls and options available if you disagree on your child's services.

Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more you can find ways to help your child. Understanding your child’s diagnosis and treatment options is only the start. Here’s a list of need-to-know items to get you started:

  • Your military child’s rights to resources and education under federal and state law, including the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA. Learn the terms associated with special education.
  • Your child’s specific needs in the classroom and at home, since the more specific your requests for resources, the more your child’s true needs get met.
  • Your child’s future needs, including possible care as an adult with special needs. Many programs have years-long waiting lists and may be expensive, so begin planning for their future now.
  • The resources and programs currently available in your community, especially in rural areas. Some resources, particularly educational and medical specialists, may be unavailable in your neighborhood without a long wait. It’s better to find these sooner rather than later.
  • The people in charge of your child’s programs and resources, at school and in the broader community. Knowing who does what, at which program, can be the difference between a successful petition and being placed on a waiting list. Connect with these people.

Remember, good advocates learn how to work best with the system. You’ll find your needs – and your child’s – will more likely be meet when you are assertive and factual in communicating both your feelings and your child’s needs.

Special Care Organizational Record for Children with Special Health Care Needs

Keep records to get the military family support you need

Most parents keep their children’s medical records out of habit. To become successful advocates for a child with special needs, though, you’ll need official records on treatments that worked and didn’t – just in case a program official wants to switch a child to a less-effective routine. Successful advocates also have their child’s behavioral and special education records, including any accommodations previously used and how effective they were.

Additionally, take notes, keeping track of who you spoke to, when, as well as what was said. Whenever possible, send emails as a follow-up to people you speak to in person or over the phone. That way, you’ll have a time-stamped paper trail in case someone forgets your conversation.

Don’t try to do everything by yourself

Advocating for your child with special needs doesn’t have to be one or two parents job. There are national and local organizations available to you in the civilian community who are ready and waiting for you to find them with a quick internet search.

Because you’re a part of the military family, however, the Department of Defense also offers special programs like the Exceptional Family Member Program and EFMP Family Support staff at your installation to help you organize and plan for upcoming meetings or help you with local resources. Military OneSource Exceptional Family Member Program Resources Options and Consultations can also help connect you and your child with special needs to free resources and specialists to ensure your whole family gets the help it needs to be healthy and mission-ready.