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Redefining ‘Special Needs’: Does This Often-Used Term Serve, Strengthen and Stimulate Connection?

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Humans are perpetually learning. Research indicates that people aren’t limited by the amount of information they can remember. According to the ed-tech startup, “a lot of evidence (exists) to suggest we are more likely to remember something if we make an active effort to understand it and if we encounter it regularly.”

How does this understanding relate to the topic of special needs?

“Special needs” is a legal term which originated in foster care in the United States and is derived from the language in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. The term became a diagnosis used to classify children as needing “more” services than children without special needs who are in the foster care system.

But how do families with so-called “special needs” children view the term in the way it has come to be defined? Is the label “special needs” beneficial in any way? Explore the perspectives on special needs and daily living offered by several families. As you read their impressions, keep the following questions in mind: Is the term “special needs” beneficial in terms of services needed? Is the categorization unnecessary? How can others be more understanding of parents and children in this regard?

Lettie Switzer: A Mom and Teacher From Pennsylvania

Lettie Switzer has a 6-year-old daughter, Imari, who is deaf and has cochlear implants. Imari’s gross motor skills are “significantly behind her peers.”

Regarding the term special needs, Switzer says, “I don’t have an issue with it, but I do feel like it’s a huge umbrella term, and I understand why a lot of families with deaf kids don’t want to use it.”

When asked how she approaches “going out and about,” Switzer says, “When Imari was a baby, toddler and preschooler, I didn’t really think about it a whole lot. People would stare at us if we were signing, but she is adorable. Who doesn’t love a sweet, smiley baby with a big personality?”

Now that she is getting older, Switzer says, other children who encounter her daughter don’t always realize that her daughter isn’t understanding completely what they are saying. “We still get looks here and there, but people are more fascinated by us,” she explains. “I often find that I need to tell people or warn people ahead of time … if there’s a misunderstanding ….”

Stacy Taylor: A Mother from Maryland

Stacy Taylor describes some of what her life looks likes with four children, two of whom are 15, and two who are 14 and 12. She explains that two children have “complex medical needs and physical disabilities. One is on the autism spectrum with severe anxiety, and one has mental health issues.”

When asked how she cares for children and keeps her family on schedule, she says, “Of course, we use calendars and other tools to help stay organized. Doesn’t everyone? The two biggest challenges we have encountered with getting out and about are prep time to do ‘anything’ and accessibility issues while out.” One child uses a wheelchair and another uses a walker.

Some may wonder whether parents like Taylor experience feelings of isolation at times. “I think if we are lucky, we are able to connect with other parents of children with special needs—other people who ‘get it.’”

She also explains that many of her friendships changed after her kids were diagnosed.

“To a certain extent, this is not unique to parents of kids with special needs. Friendships evolve and change over time.”

Regarding support, Taylor recognizes the importance of connecting with other parents of special needs kids, especially given the diverse support and social groups that exist in-person and virtually.

Meredith DeSomma: A Maryland Mother Who Is Deaf

Aveline and Veronique DeSomma | Courtesy Meredith DeSomma

Meredith DeSomma discusses the issue of stereotyping that can accompany the label “special needs.” Using American Sign Language, DeSomma says, “We don’t need to label people with having ‘special needs.’ When we meet someone, we can see if they are blind or deaf or have autism, but it’s not necessary to label people.”

When asked why she thinks people might stereotype others, DeSomma says, “Stereotyping has become a habit. Some people haven’t learned differently. Maybe they are afraid of what other people think and their perspectives. The term ‘special needs’ has always bothered me. It means that I cannot do things and I can do anything!” Social media and information people get from others also play a role in these types of perspectives.

DeSomma places helping other people at the top of her priorities. “If I see someone who has children with autism, I can help connect them with other parents. It is an open offer. I ask, ‘Who can I support?’ I would like for people reading this article to know that you can just come talk to me.”

A Maryland Mom and a Child With Autism, Dyslexia and ADHD

One mother, whose name has been withheld to preserve anonymity, lives in Maryland and has two sons. One of her sons has what she explains as autism with dyslexia combined with ADHD. He is also deaf.

“It can be difficult to keep a consistent routine,” she admits. “On most days, we give a verbal explanation of what the day ahead looks like. Then we get asked a million questions about specific timing, etc.”

What does transitioning out of the house look like? She explains that it can be difficult for each kid due to challenges that are out of our control. “We have tried schedules that are put up in the kitchen so that everybody in the family can see them, but these (frequently) fall through.”

When asked whether she feels isolated at times, she responds, “When we are out in public, we experience quite a few negative comments that are hurtful. I understand that it’s coming from a place of not knowing. When this happens, I will either ignore and move on, or I will educate and advocate if appropriate.”

It’s only fitting to end this article with the following quote, the source of which is unknown. Perhaps these ideas and perspectives will resonate with you as they have for this writer. “When you can accept yourself as you are and accept others as they are, you will finally have peace.”

Sharon Lynn Clark and Sarah | Provided Photo

Author’s note: While creating this article, this writer’s 10-year-old daughter who is deaf chimed in as a co-writer of sorts. She typed on the screen after signing using American Sign Language, “We all have special needs in many different ways.” 

Resources for Families in Frederick County and Maryland

  • Frederick County Public Schools Partners for Success:
  •  Maryland School for the Deaf (campuses in Columbia and Frederick):
  • The Maryland School for the Blind (Baltimore):
  • The Parents’ Place of Maryland: Created in 1990, The Parents’ Place of Maryland provides resources, support and information to parents of children with disabilities and special health care needs. Staffed primarily by parents of children who have children with disabilities and special health care needs, Parents’ Place assists thousands of Maryland families each year.

National Resources

This resource offers helpful links for families and individuals organized through the Special Needs Alliance.