Children With Special Healthcare Needs: Preventing And Addressing Obesity



 There is raised awareness that our nation’s children are facing an obesity epidemic. However, many are not aware that children with special needs are even more likely to be overweight or obese than their typical peers. The latest data from the Lucille Packard Foundation showed that while 30% of children are obese, over 35% of children with special needs are obese.1 Data from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that children with special needs are almost 40% more likely to be obese than their non-disabled peers. Children with mobility limitations and cognitive or learning differences are most at risk.2


The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), a parent training and information center and Family to Family Health Information Center in New Jersey, became seriously concerned about this issue when working with families of children with special needs. SPAN is a member of Shaping NJ, our state’s obesity prevention initiative, but realized that the issue of overweight and obese children with special needs was not a target of the initiative’s  activities. So SPAN reached out to partners in underserved communities in Essex and Passaic counties to pilot an effort to target families of children with special needs, Empowering Parents to Address and Prevent Obesity in their Children with Special Healthcare Needs. Working with NJ SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education), Mi Casa es Puebla (Casa Puebla), Montclair Family YMCA, and Zufall Federally Qualified Health Center, SPAN is integrating Ability Path strategies focused on nutrition and exercise for children with special healthcare needs into three SNAP-ED series and connecting trained parents with peer mentors to help them develop and implement action plans to prevent and address overweightness and obesity in their children with special needs.

“ is an on-line hub for the special needs community for parents and professionals to learn, connect and live a more balanced life – through all phases of a child’s growth and development.” (Finding Balance, Obesity and Children with Special Needs).

FQHCs provide primary care to underserved children and families; YMCAs are committed to healthy living and youth development; and Casa Puebla is a community based organization serving immigrant families.

The project’s goals include to (a) enhance the knowledge and skills of diverse parents of children with special needs on preventing and addressing obesity through healthy nutrition and exercise, by providing an educational series integrating targeted information and activities for children with special needs into the SNAP-ED curriculum; (b) support diverse parents of children with special needs to develop and implement plans aimed at preventing and addressing obesity; and (c) use what is learned from the pilot project to increase a focus on children with special needs in other local, state and national initiatives focused on obesity prevention and intervention.


Often, wellness and prevention aren’t thought of for children with disabilities because the focus is on the child’s special needs. But nutrition and physical activity are even more important for children and youth with special needs. There are things that parents can do to reinforce healthy nutrition and exercise/physical activity at home. There are many tools to help families including excellent resource guides (see Resources, below).

Physical activity is essential for good health for all children, regardless of ability. It is even more important for children with special needs who may be more likely to have weight problems, and there are ways to make activity accessible to them.

Families can help support their children with disabilities in staying healthy by reducing the amount of “screen time” (TV-watching and computer game-playing) and increasing the amount of time their children and family are engaged in physical activity, whether it’s walking, swimming, or playing sports.

In addition to engaging in physical activities at YM/YWCAs (see for information on their efforts to support people with disabilities), opportunities for integrated sports with peer buddies include Little League Challenger Division (, Miracle League  (, Special Olympics (, and even accessible playgrounds  (

Good nutrition is also critical for children with special healthcare needs, but it can be made more difficult because CSHCN are more likely to have allergies, health conditions that restrict what they can eat, and disability—related aversions to or preferences for certain foods that make it harder for parents to feed their children a healthy diet and limit unhealthy foods. FQHCs as well as other primary care providers can help by sharing nutrition information with families and talking about how to address diet restrictions or preferences in the most effective ways. Find out more about FQHCs at

There are many ways in which parents and family organizations can address nutrition and activity for children with disabilities to reach their best potential.

All of the authors are parents of children with special needs.

Brenda L. Figueroa, in addition to being the Director of the Empowering Parents to Address and Prevent Obesity in Children with Special Healthcare Needs Project at the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), is the Program Coordinator for NJ Statewide Parent to Parent and the Northwest Parent Group Specialist on SPAN’s START Project. Fanny Ochoa is a Bilingual Trainer/Support Specialist on the obesity project and also the Northeast Regional Associate for NJ Statewide Parent to Parent.

Michele Tyler is a Trainer/Support Specialist on the obesity project and is also the START (Statewide Technical Assistance Resource Team) Parent Group Specialist-Burlington/Ocean and Family Resource Specialist Mercer.

Lauren Agoratus, M.A. serves as the Coordinator for Family Voices-NJ and as the central/southern coordinator in her state’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center, both housed at the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) at


The Center for Disease Control (cdc)
Children’s Nutrition Guide: or Spanish

Body & Mind: Physical Activity or   Spanish

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Guide on Physical Activities for Girls

The National Center on Health, Physical Activity & Disability
Individualized online course: “14 Weeks to a Healthier You”

The American Academy of Pediatrics
Bright Futures Nutrition Guidelines for Children

Bright Futures Physical Activity Guide

AAP family website with nutrition information or Spanish

AAP family website fitness guides or Spanish


Statewide parent advocacy network

Parent Centers are found at

Family to Family Health Information
Centers are found at

NJ Snap
(Supplemental nutrition assistance program)
education program
State SNAP education programs are found at

Zufall Federally Qualified Health Center, West Orange
FQHCs can be found in every state at

Montclair YMCA Geyer Family Branch
Local YMCAs can be found at

contact information
77 Third St., Passaic, NJ 07055
(973) 773-2080

This project is funded by the Partners for Health Foundation