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Finding Childcare for Your Special Needs Child


Do you have a child with a physical, cognitive, developmental, behavioral or emotional disability? Does your child have special needs? Have you had a hard time finding a childcare program that will accept your child and provide appropriate care? This article includes information about your child's rights and explains how to get help finding a childcare program that will work for you.

Can my special needs child go to a childcare program with children who do not have special needs?

Yes. Even though your child has a disability, they have the same right to an open childcare spot as any other child.

The federal law, called the Americans with Disabilities Act, says that childcare programs must accept children with disabilities, even if the programs are not specifically for children with disabilities. This is true for children with medical or physical disabilities, such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, or cerebral palsy, or other special needs, such as use of a wheelchair. It is also true of cognitive, developmental, behavioral and emotional disabilities, such as ADHD, Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disabilities, and delayed speech. This law applies to most childcare programs. There are some childcare programs to which it may not apply—for example, programs run by religious organizations.

A childcare program can only turn down a child because of his or her disability if there is a real safety threat or the child’s needs are complex and require significant medical attention or other very expensive individualized care. A childcare program cannot deny a child based on their diagnosis or stereotypes about their condition. A childcare’s denial must be related to the specific individual needs of the child.

What if my child needs special attention because of his or her disability?

If your child has special needs related to a disability, the childcare center has to try to meet those needs. This is true even if it means that the program has to change some of its rules or the way it does certain things. A childcare program can only refuse to change its rules or give your child extra help if it would be so expensive or difficult that it would make it hard for the program to function. Examples of the extra help that a childcare program may have to give include:

  • Use of special equipment or aids to communicate (unless it would cost too much money);
  • Structural changes, like ramps and widening doors;
  • Help with going to the bathroom (if the program helps any child with this, even if they are younger);
  • Individual attention;
  • Help a child take his or her medicine;
  • Learn how to give a shot in case of an allergic reaction;
  • Learn how to do finger prick tests to check blood sugar levels;
  • Help with eating;
  • Change activities to make them easier for the child to join in;
  • Allow a seeing eye dog or other type of helping animal; and
  • Help putting on or taking off braces, artificial limbs, or equipment.

If a childcare program does not know how to do these things, the program must seek help from other programs or people to learn how and get help. The program must be willing to speak to your child's doctor or health aides if this will help.

You must give the program any testing equipment, medicines, or special food that your child needs, and teach the program how to use it.

Do I have to pay for this extra help?

No. A childcare program cannot make you pay anything extra. If the program has to spend extra money because of your child's disability, the program cannot charge you more. The only time a childcare program can ask you to pay is if your child needs to have very expensive equipment or a full-time aide that you (or an agency) have not provided.

Will my child be put in a class with only other disabled children?

In most cases, no. The law says that childcare programs have to allow children with disabilities to be in general classrooms with children their own age and regardless of disability whenever possible. NJ has a directory of childcare programs.

Are there any places that can help me with finding childcare and services for my special needs child?

Early Intervention, your local school district, or the New Jersey Inclusive Child Care project may be able to help. You also might be able to get help from a disability-specific organization.

Early Intervention (El)

For a child up to three years old, you can contact the Early Intervention System. Early Intervention helps families meet the needs of children from birth to age three who have developmental delays or have been diagnosed with certain types of conditions that have a high probability of leading to a developmental delay. (If you are not sure if your child has developmental delays, see this NJEIS brochure.) Early Intervention may be able to provide services that your child needs, in the childcare setting or out of it.

To have your child evaluated for Early Intervention, call Project Child Find at 800-322-8174. Parents or anyone else (doctors, daycare providers, family, or friends) can call. If eligible, an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) is developed to identify a child’s individual needs. Early Intervention services can include therapeutic services such as physical, occupational, and speech therapies, family training and support, and parent-to-parent support. Early Intervention services are free to families with income up to 300% of the federal poverty level. For more information on Early Intervention, visit Early Intervention: For Families (from NJHealth).

Local School District

If your child is three years old or older and has special needs that affect their learning or development, you can contact your local school district to ask that your child be evaluated for Special Education services. The request should be made in writing and sent to your child’s school’s Child Study Team or the director of special services in the school district where you live. The school district must have a meeting with you within 20 days. The purpose of the meeting is to decide whether your child is in need of a special education evaluation. If English is not your primary language or you use another mode of communication, the school district provide an interpreter.

If your child is eligible to receive special education and related services, the school district must meet with you to come up with an Individual Education Program (IEP).

If your child is eligible to receive special education and related services, the school district must meet with you to come up with a plan, called an Individual Education Program (IEP). The IEP will set out the special education program and related services that your child needs in order to receive a fair and appropriate public education. The services will be provided in a classroom setting with the least restrictive environment that is appropriate for them. This means a setting that includes other school age children who do not have special needs. For a preschool age child, this may be a public preschool program or licensed childcare program. See Special Education for more information.

New Jersey Inclusive Child Care Project

The New Jersey Inclusive Child Care Project (NJICCP) provides free information in Spanish and English about available services in New Jersey for children with special needs. It also provides free trainings for parents and childcare providers on how to include children with disabilities in childcare programs.

Legal Services of New Jersey

If you have a question about your legal rights related to getting childcare for your child with a disability, you may contact the LSNJLAWSMHotline, online at or by calling 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).