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Cognition and Children with Special Needs

Sandhya Basu

Lakshmi is a 4-year-old girl diagnosed with Down syndrome. When Lakshmi was born, her parents were prepared for the future challenges concerning her appearance, behavior, mood, and medical issues. Luckily, Lakshmi needed no special medical attention and leads a very peaceful life. This is because her parents consulted with the mental health experts and special educators who suggested an enrichment program to improve cognitive functioning, right from an early age. Lakshmi attended the program every day, and the mental health experts worked towards improving her motor, intellectual, and behavior development. Next year, Lakshmi will enter a regular school like other children. The teachers at the regular school also showed confidence in teaching her the appropriate way, so that she understands her lessons properly. The school understands the importance of providing resources to children like Lakshmi—to encourage them to bloom to their fullest potential.

You may have many questions after reading Lakshmi’s story. Is it possible to improve a child’s cognition after a diagnosis of some psychological problem? Can special children, such as Lakshmi, do well in academics? Can such enrichment programs improve and shape children’s brain? The answer to all these questions is yes. After reading this chapter, you will have an overview of the different types of psychological problems in children, recent research showing how some training programs and habits can improve children’s functioning, and the ways we, as caregivers, can promote wellbeing and help them recognize their abilities.

By now, you will have a fair idea of what cognition is. It is the mental activity that helps us understand and process information around us. It is with cognition that we learn new things, build our memory, and understand the world around us. As children grow, their cognition or the ability to do mental activities also grow. But in some cases, these cognitive skills develop slowly or at a much later stage. This becomes an issue as our cognition is also linked with our social, language, and motor (bodily) development. So, when children do not show age-appropriate cognitive skills, their other developments also become slower than usual.

‘Special needs’ is a broad term for different types of psychological difficulties--ranging from those that can be resolved quickly (mild learning disorders or behavioral problems) to those that are of severe nature (autism or any other neurodevelopmental disorders). Clinically, special needs mainly cover developmental delays, medical, psychiatric, and congenital (inherited medical issue) conditions that create challenges for the children’s overall wellbeing. Simply put, special needs describe those who face difficulties in performing cognitive or mental skills than any average person.

Let’s look at some examples of what comes under the special-needs challenges. We have:

  1. Developmental Issues: a disorder beginning in childhood and having cognitive (mental) and physical disabilities. Few examples include autism (issues in social communication), down syndrome (a genetic disorder causing impairments in a child’s development and intellectual capability), and intellectual disability (limitations in mental function and skills--- self-help, communication, and social).

  2. Behavioral Issues: happens as the child grows and breaks social norms and causes distress to oneself and others. For example, children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) grow inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactive---causing distress in one’s academic and social lives. They may also run around the class, not let the teachers teach, or even hit around people, if provoked.

  3. Learning Issues: information-processing disorder in children that mostly gets noticed through their academic achievement. Few examples include dyslexia (difficulty in reading), dysgraphia (difficulty in producing one’s thoughts on paper), and dyscalculia (difficulties in understanding and analyzing mathematical concepts).

There are many children who suffer from severe mental health issues and other disabilities. According to the census in 2011, 2.21% (26.8 million people) of the entire population in India has one or the other disability. 5% of this group are children of age below 4 years, 7% are in the age group of 5-9 years, and 17% fall in the age group of 10-19 years.

These statistics can be alarming, but the good news is that we also have recent research studies that show that special-needs children can now be trained to improve their cognitive abilities. And as you read this chapter, many such research studies are also work in progress! These are some study findings that show the possibility of improving the cognitive skills of children with special needs through focused training:

  1. Intelligence Quotient (IQ) can change with time: one-on-one cognitive training can improve the average IQ and certain cognitive skills like associative memory, working memory, long-term memory, logic, reasoning, and visual and auditory processing speed.

  2. Brain training increases cognitive skills: one-on-one or computer-based training can improve logic, reasoning, memory, and mathematical aptitude.

  3. Sleep improves academic growth: an increase of just 18 minutes of sleep can boost academic grades.

  4. New connections in the brain (even after it is fully developed) is now possible! Brain training can significantly change the neuronal (brain cells) connections, increasing global efficiency in cognition.

  5. Music can boost attention: The cortical thickness of the brain, which is responsible for motor planning (body movement), coordination, visuospatial ability, and emotion regulation, developed faster in children who played musical instruments. They were also better at attention, anxiety, and emotion management.

Every special child is different and so are the needs of their families. But we are still knitted together because of few of our common interests. These interests can be consulting the appropriate and qualified professionals, getting the right care and treatment, and advocating acceptance from the society--extended family, school, and community.

Just like how Lakshmi’s parents were ready with the necessary precautionary treatments for her, we can also do our share to improve the cognitive skills of special children. Research and mental health professionals suggest the same in the following easy steps:

  1. Encourage using procedural memory (memory of performing things) whenever possible- it is always easier to remember how to perform a particular task than the task itself. For example, if a child (diagnosed with a learning disorder) cannot understand what she is reading, she can write a list of questions and then go back to the text to find their answers. This way, she will not get stuck at the task (understanding what is written) but can focus on how to overcome the difficulty (by listing her questions and going back to the text).

  2. Create a schedule- writing daily in diaries or journals and maintaining a routine everyday improve different types of memory impairments. Once a child writes and goes back to his or her diary at the end of the day, the memory refreshes itself and the child gets better at remembering things.

  3. Exercise- research findings have repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of exercising in improving cognition, especially memory. For example, cross-lateral exercises like yoga, swimming, and cycling strengthen neural connections between the brain’s left and right sides. These neural connections improve overall brain’s functioning.

  4. Relax- when we relax, the stress hormone in our brain--cortisol, known to impair cognition, reduces. Absence of cortisol encourages the smooth functioning cognitive skills. Regular meditation is an excellent tool for cognitive wellness.

  5. Creativity- children tend to internalize their weaknesses., that is, keep their feelings bottled up inside them whenever they feel inferior or fail at certain tasks. Having a creative outlet such as painting, writing, dancing, etc., can reduce stress in children and empower their skills.

A cognitive deficit is not a disease. You cannot “catch a disorder or a disability” from anyone. Hence, one should not encourage the stigma surrounding such disorders. But it is also important to note that if the deficit is of a severe type, a mental health professional can help in improving cognition with the help of the necessary therapies, just like Lakshmi’s case. Most special children can learn new skills and perform many things; it just takes them extra time and effort than other children. Proper guidance, care, compassion, love, and most importantly trust in their skills can motivate them to learn further and lead a good life.


  1. Barkhordar, F., Moghtadaie, M., & Jafari, A. S. A. (2012). Effectiveness met cognition strategies on children with spelling learning disabilities. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 69, 1244-1249.

  2. Blakemore, S. J., & Choudhury, S. (2006). Development of the adolescent brain: implications for executive function and social cognition. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 47(3‐4), 296-312.

  3. Dutt, S. S. Ways to Improve your Intelligence Quotient (IQ).

  4. Hill, O. W., Serpell, Z., & Faison, M. O. (2016). The efficacy of the LearningRx cognitive training program: modality and transfer effects. The Journal of Experimental Education, 84(3), 600-620.

  5. Lucas, C. (2012). Boost memory and learning with music.

  6. Wheaton, A. G., Chapman, D. P., & Croft, J. B. (2016). School start times, sleep, behavioral, health, and academic outcomes: a review of the literature. Journal of School Health, 86(5), 363-381.

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