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Moving to Italy with a special-needs child

Updated 31 May 2013

There is no denying that moving overseas is challenging, but for parents of children with special needs, relocating to a new country can seem impossible. Italy is not an ideal place for children with special needs. While it has strong legislation and principles of inclusion, the country is bound by regional norms that can make locating and benefiting from these services difficult.

‘Special needs’ is a broad category and encompasses children with physical, intellectual and mental disabilities or challenges that impact their ability to learn. The type and severity of a child’s disability will dictate the kind of assistance they require. For a vision or hearing impairment, a child might need medical aids and a dedicated teaching assistant versed in either Braille or sign language. 

A parent of a child with autism, ADHD or Down Syndrome will need to find a specialist paediatrician to follow their child’s intellectual growth and, in the absence of a specialised school, a teacher’s aide who can provide them with dedicated, individualised lessons at least once a week. In the case of a physical disability, parents will need to speak to the school’s principal about ramps and other assistive equipment. It’s likely that your child will also need intensive language tutoring if you choose not to send them to an English-language international school in Italy.

It’s a good idea to meet with your health professional before you leave your home country and get a picture of your child’s current and future needs. In Italy, the parent is expected to anticipate and locate the medical and educational services their child will require, so it’s best to be prepared.

The situation in Italy for children with special needs

The primary challenge for parents of children with special needs is navigating the language barrier. With no one centralised body representing the interests or rights of children with special needs across Italy, it’s hard to find information online in Italian and nearly impossible in English.

To complicate matters, the laws that protect children with special needs are supplemented by regional and state provisions that regulate the implementation of the relevant services. In other words, it’s up to the region you’re in to decide what services it will provide to children with particular challenges – and more importantly, what services are free of charge.

It’s vital that you do your research before you move to Italy. Get a clear picture of how highly your new home values special needs services. In regions like Parma and Milan, you’re likely to find plenty of well-established service providers, while in rural areas and Southern Italy, the situation can be very different.

Support networks and organisations for children with special needs in Italy

Finding support networks in Italy can be difficult. There are general groups for expat parents like Mum Abroad that can connect you with the community, but there’s nothing specifically for parents of children with special needs. The Italian support network is naturally wider, but it’s exclusively in Italian. 

FISH, or Federazione Italiana per il Superamento dell’Handicap, has a really comprehensive list of organisations. These organisations will not only be able to recommend support groups, but they can also help you understand your rights in your local area. Unfortunately, all the websites are in Italian, but they may be able to help you in English if you email or call.

It’s a good idea to reach out to the support networks in your home country and ask them for advice. In Europe, especially, many organisations work across borders and may be able to give you names of organisations and services in Italy that can help.

Medical support for children with special needs in Italy

Whether you’re still seeking a diagnosis for your child or need to secure routine medical or psychological care, remember that your entitlements as a foreign resident will differ from those offered to Italian citizens. 

As a general rule, EU citizens are entitled to free healthcare under the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale. If you’re not a member of the EU, your visa might still entitle you to free healthcare. Otherwise, you’ll need to get private health insurance. Make sure your policy covers the sorts of treatment you need. You can learn more about your entitlements on the Ministry of Health website (see below).

Once in Italy, your first point of call is a General Practitioner (medico generico). It’s a good idea to find one that speaks English. The US government has a list of recommended English-speaking doctors in the major cities in Italy. You can also check with the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale when you register. Your general practitioner will refer you to a paediatrician (pediatra) and further specialists (specialiste) if required. Italy has a very comprehensive and well-functioning public healthcare system, but you shouldn’t expect all specialist services to be free.

Schooling for children with special needs in Italy

Italy‘s policy of inclusion and integration in schools and the community is well established. Children with special needs, provided they aren’t too severe, are encouraged to enrol in mainstream schools. It’s up to the individual school to judge what constitutes severe. Lifts and ramps must be installed in schools when required, and children with special needs are entitled to up to 12 hours of tuition with a specially qualified support teacher (maestro di sostegno).

Before you leave your home country, put together a portfolio that outlines your child’s condition. You should include medical documents, psychological and educational assessments and any learning plans you have. Be honest about your child’s condition and your expectations with everyone you speak to in Italy. This will place you in a better position to secure the services you need.

If you want,, your child to attend a local Italian-language school then you should schedule an appointment with the principal. Bring along an interpreter if necessary and be sure to discuss your expectations and requirements. The best way to avoid disappointment is to get everything in writing so you can refer to it later.

The Good School Guide website has a list of independently reviewed international schools in Italy and refers to available support services for children with special needs. The US Department of State has a similar list. While neither of these are extensive, they are a good starting point. The US Department of State also has a booklet on moving overseas with a child with special needs. It’s not tailored to Italy or expats, but it’s a great introductory resource with tips on what to prepare and how to find the right school for you.

Whether you choose an international school or a local school in Italy, a support teacher is not a given. You may be asked to pay all or some of the fees required to hire one and some schools might be resistant to admitting your child. It’s important to discuss this thoroughly with the principal before you enrol.

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