A developmental disability and mental health nurse, or special needs nurse, works with patients that have disabilities or disorders such as Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, brain damage or autism spectrum disorder. Many of these disorders begin at birth and are chronic, while others are incurred through accidents. Either way, these conditions affect the patient’s ability to grow, learn and achieve typical developmental milestones.
Many nurses in this specialization are associated with the Developmental Disabilities Nursing Association, which states its mission is to “continually develop our expertise to assure the highest quality of life for the people we support throughout their lifespan.”
As the name implies, developmental disability nurses work with patients who have intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD). Along with typical duties such as keeping up with patient medications, updating charts and communicating with family members, special needs nurses also must:
- Help patients eat and assist with bodily functions
- Collaborate with family, school staff and other caregivers to create individualized plans for work or school environments
- Create recommendations for medical plans through analysis of patient’s health information
- Educate patient and family on best healthcare practices and how to advocate for the patient
- Serve as a liaison between other caregivers and family to focus on the patient’s needs
- Keep precise records for the other caregivers, which may include social workers, occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech therapists
Special needs nurses work in a variety of different environments. Some work in hospitals, while some may work for government or community agencies. Others may work in a home health setting, group homes, primary care centers or private homes.
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Research also is an important aspect of IDD care. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development includes the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch, which focuses on research.
The IDDB’s stated research priorities are:
- The etiology (cause or set of causes) for IDD, especially related to genetic causes and the interaction between genes and environmental exposures
- The complexity of comorbid systems to improve daily functioning and health in children and families with IDD
- Developing the means for early diagnosis and interventions
- Developing appropriate, valid biomarkers
- Natural history and neurobiological behavior transitions
- Translational and implementation research for specific and effective treatment of IDD
Developmental disability nurses might assist with research, or conduct research independently.
Job Growth and Salary
As advances continue to be made in the medical field, it has become less difficult to treat, detect and diagnose developmental disabilities; however, the need for highly skilled nurses in this field is great.
Statistics for developmental disability nurses are not tracked specifically by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but as of May 2016, registered nurses had an average annual salary of $68,450, and the need for nursing jobs is expected to grow 15% by 2026.
Pay rates for specialties may increase and vary based on states and the status of the jobs market, so candidates are encouraged to do their own research when conducting a job search.
How to Become a Developmental Disabilities Nurse
While considering this specialty, keep in mind that special needs nurses often must do heavy lifting and help their patients get in and out of bed and/or wheelchairs. They also must exercise patience and be extremely compassionate while working with patients and family members.
Nursing job candidates first need to become a registered nurse, and then can go on to get their Bachelor of Science in nursing. After that, they can become licensed by taking the NCLEX examination. To apply for certification with the Developmental Disabilities Nurses Association, candidates must have a minimum of 4,000 hours working with developmentally disabled patients as an RN, LPN or LVN. Candidates should also be well-versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act.