Neurodiversity in the Classroom

The picture shows a school classroom as I see it, as an autistic person.  A kaleidoscope of shape and blinding lighting, with vague outlines which are probably other students.  Deafening noise.  The stench of different smells.  The confusion of many voices, including some heard through walls from neighbouring halls and classes.  School uniform that feels like barbed wire on my skin.

In the chaos, a different voice which I have to try to listen to.  It’s so hard.  My brain doesn’t want to tune the rest of the noise out.  Apparently I’ve been asked something, but I miss it.  The voice gets more strident, the class turns to look at me.  The intense stares overwhelm me.  The person next to me jostles me and it feels like an electric shock on my skin.  Only six more hours of hell to go…. only six….

Some of our autistic pupils simply cannot do this alone, without ‘time out’ to recover from the pain and exhaustion during the school day.  Not for hour after hour of puzzling painful chaos.

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, School, Exclusion. What’s fair?

CW: behaviorism, ABA, PB[I]S, ableism, mental health, suicide

Walk into many SpEd classrooms, and you’ll see little awareness of neurodiversity and the social model of disability. Students with conflicting sensory needs and accommodations are squished together with no access to cave, campfire, or watering hole zones. This sensory environment feeds the overwhelm -> meltdown -> burnout cycle. Feedback loops cascade. Mind blind neurotypical adults call across the room, feeding the overwhelm. They ratchet compliance, feeding the overwhelm. They treat meltdowns as attention-seeking “fits”, feeding the overwhelm. They not only fail to presume competence, they speak about kids as if they aren’t even there, feeding the overwhelm. The familiar yet wrong things are done.

We’ve turned classrooms into a hell for autism. Fluorescent lighting. Endless noise. Everywhere, bright patterns and overloading information. Groupwork and social time. Crowded hallways and relentless academic pressure. Autistic children mostly could cope in the quieter schools of decades ago. Not a hope now.

We cannot simply exclude autistic pupils for entering meltdowns. Meltdowns are part of autism for a good number of autistic young people.

Whilst mindful that of course everyone needs to be safe, the way to achieve safety is to stop hurting the autistic children. Punishing them for responding to pain is not something any of us need to do.

What schools need to do is to understand autism. In understanding it, we can help to stop putting the children in pain and exhaustion. It’s actually quite easy. And quite cheap.

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, School, Exclusion. What’s fair?

The most important thing to understand about autism in shared space is sensory overwhelm. Education, in my experience as student and parent, doesn’t, not in any practical, first-person way. ABA and behaviorism pointedly don’t understand.

Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.

It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

We navigate systems stacked against us to get access to what amounts to dog training—that dog trainers know better than to use—and a segregated “special” track through our systems that pathologically pathologizes difference and fails to connect with the communities it helps marginalize.

The specialists that serve this “special” track aren’t so much specialized in the lives and needs of neurodivergent and disabled people (managing sensory overwhelm, avoiding meltdown and burnout, dealing with ableism, connecting with online communities, developing agency and voice through self-advocacy) as they are specialized in deficit and medical models that pathologize difference and identity. Such framing is too limited to see us.

So heartbreakingly many can’t even bring themselves to use our language or educate parents about our existence. After autistic students age out of our care, we erase them again as adults.

More children than ever before are being diagnosed with autism. But what about the adults? Some of these individuals have never been diagnosed but have always known they were a bit “different.” Others were diagnosed but did not have the same degree of societal acceptance or the same number of resources available to help them cope with a neurotypical world.

Now this group of adults is the demographic that best understands what people with autism need, whether or not they know how to articulate it in a way the rest of society is able to grasp. But what these men and women have to say about autism is important. These people need to be heard!

The video below encourages adults with autism to get involved in the discussion and asks others to be cognizant of the needs of people with autism and invite them into the conversation. The neurotypical community needs adults with autism to lend their voices and experiences to help make the future brighter for the next generation!

Check out this powerful video!

Source: This Video Demonstrates What It’s Like to Be an Autistic Adult Who Isn’t Being Heard | The Autism Site Blog

Being an autistic parent of an autistic child means navigating a world that doesn’t see us as whole while advocating for two people at the same time. Specialists don’t take autistic parents seriously, don’t trust that we know our own needs, let alone a child’s. How can we when we’re in need of special services and accommodations, too?

Source: Catapult | Catapult | The Greatest Challenge of Raising an Autistic Child as an Autistic Parent? The Ableist World We Live In | Lu Everman

After sensory overwhelm, the next most important thing to understand about autism in the classroom is autistic burnout. Autistic burnout is unknown in the deficit and medical models. To hear about it, you have to go to #ActuallyAutistic people. We live this.

If you saw someone going through Autistic Burnout would you be able to recognise it? Would you even know what it means? Would you know what it meant for yourself if you are an Autistic person? The sad truth is that so many Autistic people, children and adults, go through this with zero comprehension of what is happening to them and with zero support from their friends and families.

If you’re a parent reading this, I can confidently say that I bet that no Professional, from diagnosis, through any support services you’re lucky enough to have been given, will have mentioned Autistic Burnout or explained what it is. If you’re an Autistic person, nobody will have told you about it either, unless you’ve engaged with the Autistic community.

Autistic Burnout is an integral part of the life of an Autistic person that affects us pretty much from the moment we’re born to the day we die, yet nobody, apart from Autistic people really seem to know about it…

Source: An Autistic Burnout – The Autistic Advocate

Do as these researchers are finally doing. They are in the space connecting with autistic people. They are using and spreading our language. They are building, with us,  a community of practice around participatory research that reflects our priorities. We see them and welcome others, particularly K-12.

Scientists are increasingly recognizing a moral imperative to collaborate with the communities they study, and the practical benefits that result. Autism researchers are joining this movement, partnering with people on the spectrum and their families to better address their priorities.

Source: Autism research needs a dose of social science | Spectrum | Autism Research News

Events like The International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) annual meeting are waking to the harm that has been done. They are finally including autistic people and autistic perspective.

So many of us in this system want to do better. Students and teachers find themselves in spaces guaranteed to result in feedback loops and meltdowns and the eventual burnout of everyone involved.  Responding to fires and stresses caused by overloaded sensory spaces and deficit ideology consumes more time, people, and passion than available and starves a better future of oxygen.

A better future requires time and will to get structural, get socialget equity literate, connect with communities, and build classroom user experiences compatible with neurodiversity and disability. SpEd and self-advocates should be working together,  designing for real life and fixing injustice, not kids.

A better future requires a justice mindset.

A better future requires an acceptance mindset.

A better future is a future made togetherRespecting neurodiversity improves interactions between neurodivergent people and public services. To that end, here are some autistic perspectives on sensory overwhelm, meltdowns, burnout, compliance, behaviorism, and “special needs“.

Sensory overwhelm is a marquee feature of my life. Autistic perception can be a high fidelity flood in an intense world. “Autistic perception is the direct perception of the forming of experience. This has effects: activities which require parsing (crossing the street, finding the path in the forest) can be much more difficult. But there is no question that autistic perception experiences richness in a way the more neurotypically inclined perception rarely does.

Prolonged sensory overwhelm can lead to meltdown. A meltdown is not a tantrum. It is not attention-seeking. It is a response to overwhelm, anxiety, and stress. If I meltdown, the best thing you can do is be present, patient, calm, quiet, and compassionate. Meltdowns are tidal waves of sensory overwhelm. Try not to add to the overwhelm. “But I’m tortured because whilst I don’t want to make a scene or have strangers adding to the overload and overwhelm, I’m simultaneously desperate for someone to give me a massive, firm, bear-hug. To hide me, cocoon me, and shield me from the shock waves that travel from their universe into mine.

Overwhelm, meltdowns, and the stress of trying to fit into neurotypical society lead to autistic burnout. “Burnout can happen to anyone at any age, because of the expectation to look neurotypical, to not stim, to be as non-autistic as possible. Being something that neurologically you are not is exhausting.

Noncompliance is a social skill“. “Prioritize teaching noncompliance and autonomy to your kids. Prioritize agency.” “Many behavior therapies are compliance-based. Compliance is not a survival skill. It makes us vulnerable.” “It’s of crucial importance that behavior based compliance training not be central to the way we parent, teach, or offer therapy to autistic children. Because of the way it leaves them vulnerable to harm, not only as children, but for the rest of their lives.” Disabled kids “are driven to comply, and comply, and comply. It strips them of agency. It puts them at risk for abuse.” “The most important thing a developmentally disabled child needs to learn is how to say “no.” If they only learn one thing, let it be that.” “Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up.”  ‘What I am against are therapies to make us stop flapping our hands or spinning in circles. I am against forbidding children to use sign language or AAC devices to communicate when speech is difficult. I am against any therapy designed to make us look “normal” or “indistinguishable from our peers.” My peers are Autistic and I am just fine with looking and sounding like them.‘ “When an autistic teen without a standard means of expressive communication suddenly sits down and refuses to do something he’s done day after day, this is self-advocacy … When an autistic person who has been told both overtly and otherwise that she has no future and no personhood reacts by attempting in any way possible to attack the place in which she’s been imprisoned and the people who keep her there, this is self-advocacy … When people generally said to be incapable of communication find ways of making clear what they do and don’t want through means other than words, this is self-advocacy.” “We don’t believe that conventional communication should be the prerequisite for your loved one having their communication honored.

Source: I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.

The logic of the connection between “special needs” and “special [segregated] places” is very strong – it doesn’t need reinforcement – it needs to be broken.

Further, the “special needs” label sets up the medical “care” model to disability rather than the social inclusion model of disability. It narrows and medicalises society’s response to the person by suggesting that the focus should be on “treating” their “special needs”, rather than on the person’s environment responding to and accommodating the person – including them for the individual that they are.

There is another insidious but serious consequence of being labelled (as having or being) “special needs”. The label carries with it the implication that a person with “special needs” can only have their needs met by “special” help or “specially-trained” people – by “specialists”. That implication is particularly powerful and damaging in our mainstream schooling systems – it is a barrier to mainstream schools, administrators and teachers feeling responsible, empowered or skilled to embrace and practice inclusive education in regular classrooms, and accordingly perpetuates attitudinal resistance to realising the human right to inclusive education under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In other words, the language of “special needs” leads to, and serves to excuse, a “can’t do” attitude as the default position of many general educators – it effectively deprives inclusive education of its necessary oxygen – a conducive “can do” classroom culture.

The label of “special needs” is inconsistent with recognition of disability as part of human diversity.  In that social framework, none of us are “special” as we are all equal siblings in the diverse family of humanity.

Source: “He ain’t special, he’s my brother” – Time to ditch the phrase “special needs” – Starting With Julius

An education that is designed to the edges and takes into account the jagged learning profile of all students can help unlock the potential in every child.

Source: From Hostility to Community – Teachers Going Gradeless

We have autistic children who need us to support them as architects of their own liberation against the schools and clinicians and institutions and police and prosecutors who would crush and destroy them.

Source: Autistic Hoya: The neurodiversity movements needs its shoes off, and fists up.

Further reading,

Neurodiversity and Unilateral Accommodationism

Lately, I’ve seen the neurodiversity movement presented in terms of unilateral accommodationism by detractors of the “Neurodiversity Lobby”.

Here are a few examples anonymously cribbed from Twitter.

Do you believe autistic people should cultivate ourselves, or should society just accommodate us with no effort on our parts?

Neurorealism means that autistic people should cultivate ourselves as far as is reasonable, and other people in society should accommodate ourselves as far as is reasonable. This is bilateral accommodation, and it is generally rejected by the Neurodiversity lobbyists.

The Neurodiversity lobby advocates unilateral accommodationism.

I’m not hanging out in every pocket of the greater neurodiversity universe, but around the watercoolers I lurk, accommodation is usually couched not in unilateral terms, but in terms of bridging the double empathy gap and moving from the framing of accommodation to the framing of inclusion and acceptance.

Accommodation encourages the harmful ableist tropes of people being “special” and “getting away with” extra “privileges” and “advantages”. Accommodation is fertile ground for zero-sum thinking, grievance culture, and the politics of resentment. The terrain of accommodation is hostile and fraught. The topography is designed for attrition. Navigating it consumes spoons while fueling internalized ableism, anxiety, depression, and burn out. We must change the framing to survive. We must change the default.

A big part of our susceptibility to issues like anxiety has to do with how we were slowly socialized, either implicitly or explicitly, to believe that an autistic lifestyle is something that is defective and therefore needs fixing. A recent Independent article sums up the strong link between lack of autism acceptance and the development of mental health disorders in autistic people: Research shows that lack of acceptance externally from others and internally from the self significantly predicts depression and anxiety in young adults with autism.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: Mental Health and Autism: Why Acceptance Matters

Social model families are real families preparing our kids for a real world where neurodivergent people have shortened lifespans, higher unemployment, and higher likelihoods of ending up under state control or being killed by law enforcement. We have to prove our disabilities and “disorders” and identities over and over to get any wiggle room to be different and learn differently in our resentful compliance cultures. We must submit ourselves to patient-hood and bear the language of deficit and disorder as identity.

That wiggle room to learn differently isn’t so wiggly, because what you earn upon clearing the many hurdles of accommodation is segregation and access to a disability industrial complex that pathologizes your identity and seeks to suppress your differences through behaviorism.

My experience with special education and ABA demonstrates how the dichotomy of interventions that are designed to optimize the quality of life for individuals on the spectrum can also adversely impact their mental health, and also their self-acceptance of an autistic identity. This is why so many autistic self-advocates are concerned about behavioral modification programs: because of the long-term effects they can have on autistic people’s mental health. This is why we need to preach autism acceptance, and center self advocates in developing appropriate supports for autistic people. That means we need to take autistic people’s insights, feelings, and desires into account, instead of dismissing them.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: Mental Health and Autism: Why Acceptance Matters

We have a medical community that’s found a sickness for every single human difference. DSM keeps growing every single year with new ways to be defective, with new ways to be lessened.

Disability industrial complex is all about what people can’t do. We spend most of our time trying to fix what they can’t do. When all we do is fix people the message we give to them is that they are broken.

We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

Source: The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed

Accommodation gets you more deficit model and more medical model, but rarely compassion. Compassion and acceptance are practical and effective magic. They remedy a lot of problems and contribute to psychological safety. Acceptance matters. Accommodationism, unilateral or the usual, doesn’t get you much of it.

We’re not preparing our kids for unilateral accommodationism or universal acceptance; we’re preparing them for a journey against odds and equipping them with a social model identity, the tools of self-advocacy, and the support of their neurosiblings and cousins so that they can help improve our systems for themselves and those who come next.

So far, I find the unilateral accommodationism line too reductionist. It smashes nuance out of the neurodiversity movement I know and discounts a whole lot of people who are doing the quiet, back-and-forth, iterative work in our schools, workplaces, and institutions of opening minds to social model perspectives. “Unilateral accommodationism” suggests neurodivergent and disabled people have the power and that there is anything resembling a good faith effort to meet us even halfway. It smacks of resentment.

At its core, intersectionality is about nuance and context.” Likewise with neurodiversity. My neurodiversity is about nuance and context. It’s about the “foregrounding of complexity as the baseline”.  It’s about structural ideology and equity literacy. It’s about challenging the “violence of the norm” and the “grounding narrative of exclusion” that is neurotypicality.

Neurodiversity is a movement that celebrates difference while remaining deeply nuanced on questions of (medical) facilitation and the necessity of rethinking the concept of accommodation against narratives of cure. The added emphasis on neurology has been necessary in order to challenge existing norms that form the base-line of existence: the “neuro” in neurodiversity has opened up the conversation about the category of neurotypicality and the largely unspoken criteria that support and reinforce the definition of what it means to be human, to be intelligent, to be of value to society. This has been especially necessary for those folks who continue to be excluded from education, social and economic life, who are regarded as less than human, whose modes of relation continue to be deeply misunderstood, and who are cast as burdens to society.

Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that this enhanced perceptual field is an aspect of much autistic experience and something neurotypicals could learn a lot from, not only with regard to perception itself, but also as concerns the complexity of experience.

Neurotypicality is a grounding narrative of exclusion. The neurotypical is the category to which our education systems aspire. It is the category to which our ideas of the nuclear family aspire. And, it is the category on which the concept of the citizen (and by extension participation in the nation-state and the wider global economy) is based.

In the context of education, which is the one I am most knowledgeable about, the mechanisms for upholding the neurotypical standard are everywhere in force. Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.

Having “special needs” classrooms upholds neurotypicality, for instance, as the dominant model of existence. Drugging our children because of their attention deficit is upholding a neurotypical norm. Sending our black and indigenous children to juvenile detention centers in disproportionate numbers is upholding a neurotypical norm which takes, as neurotypicality always does, whiteness as the standard.

To engage with neurodiversity is to speak up about the extraordinary silence around neurotypicality and to acknowledge that we do not question ourselves enough as regards what kinds of bodies are welcomed and supported in education, and in social life more broadly. It is still far too rare that we discuss neurotypicality as that which frames our ways of knowing, of presenting ourselves, of being bodies in the world.

The violence of the norm that is imposed without ever having to be spoken as such is debilitating. Not only does it normalize education, siphoning out difference of all kinds, but it also forces all bodies who want to be recognized as “knowledgeable” (and thus human) to be organized within an incredibly unimaginative matrix.

Neurotypicality as mode of knowledge policing builds on what it considers “direct” communication.

What is needed are not more categories but more sensitivity to difference and a more acute attunement to qualities of experience.

Source: Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm – Los Angeles Review of Books

Intersectionality is a structural theory about processes and systems that make our identities mean something in different contexts.

Intersectionality’s raison dêtre is to reveal the systems that organize our society. Intersectionality’s brilliance is that its fundamental contribution to how we view the world seems so common-sense once you have heard it: by focusing on the parts of the system that are most complex and where the people living it are the most vulnerable we understand the system best. Mark Lilla and others who critique this view of the body politic, reducing it to the caricature of “identity politics”, refuse to engage intersectionality’s most powerful empirical truth: we all have intersectional identities and all of them matter, if not all in the same way.

Source: The Intersectional Presidency – Tressie McMillan Cottom – Medium

See also,

The Segregation of Special

The word “special” is used to sugar-coat segregation and societal exclusion – and its continued use in our language, education systems, media etc serves to maintain those increasingly antiquated “special” concepts that line the path to a life of exclusion and low expectations.

Source: “He ain’t special, he’s my brother” – Time to ditch the phrase “special needs” – Starting With Julius

This piece speaks to my experience as a neurodivergent father with neurodivergent kids. “Special” is non-inclusive, discriminatory language. It is a deficit and medical model euphemism that excuses segregation and exclusion.

“Special” is the language of patients captive to a disability industrial complex. “We have a medical community that’s found a sickness for every single human difference. DSM keeps growing every single year with new ways to be defective, with new ways to be lessened.” “We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient-hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.Identity-first is the language of agents. By replacing “special” with social model language, we can begin the transformation from patient to agent.

“Special” is the language of compliance. Disabled kids “are driven to comply, and comply, and comply. It strips them of agency. It puts them at risk for abuse.” “Prioritize teaching noncompliance and autonomy to your kids. Prioritize agency.” “The most important thing a developmentally disabled child needs to learn is how to say “no.” If they only learn one thing, let it be that.” “It’s of crucial importance that behavior based compliance training not be central to the way we parent, teach, or offer therapy to autistic children. Because of the way it leaves them vulnerable to harm, not only as children, but for the rest of their lives.

“Special” is the language of abuse. People that are “special” can be tormented and murdered.

Change our vocabulary and change our framing. Use the inclusive language of neurodiversity & the social model of disability. Use the power of identity first language to connect disabled kids with an identity and tribe. With identity-first pride and a social model tribe at their backs, kids can better develop voice, agency, and the tools of self-advocacy.

The time is now for social model inclusion. Our needs are human needs, not special needs. Language matters. We have a moral imperative to connect with the communities we serve and use the language they prefer.

Although human diversity, the social model of disability and inclusion as human rights framework concepts are developing traction, for much of society the “special story” still goes like this:

A child with “special needs” catches the “special bus” to receive “special assistance” in a “special school” from “special education teachers” to prepare them for a “special” future living in a “special home” and working in a “special workshop”.

Does that sound “special” to you?

The word “special” is used to sugar-coat segregation and societal exclusion – and its continued use in our language, education systems, media etc serves to maintain those increasingly antiquated “special” concepts that line the path to a life of exclusion and low expectations.

The logic of the connection between “special needs” and “special [segregated] places” is very strong – it doesn’t need reinforcement – it needs to be broken.

Further, the “special needs” label sets up the medical “care” model to disability rather than the social inclusion model of disability. It narrows and medicalises society’s response to the person by suggesting that the focus should be on “treating” their “special needs”, rather than on the person’s environment responding to and accommodating the person – including them for the individual that they are.

There is another insidious but serious consequence of being labelled (as having or being) “special needs”.  The label carries with it the implication that a person with “special needs” can only have their needs met by “special” help or “specially-trained” people – by “specialists”.  That implication is particularly powerful and damaging in our mainstream schooling systems – it is a barrier to mainstream schools, administrators and teachers feeling responsible, empowered or skilled to embrace and practice inclusive education in regular classrooms, and accordingly perpetuates attitudinal resistance to realising the human right to inclusive education under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In other words, the language of “special needs” leads to, and serves to excuse, a “can’t do” attitude as the default position of many general educators – it effectively deprives inclusive education of its necessary oxygen – a conducive “can do” classroom culture.

The label of “special needs” is inconsistent with recognition of disability as part of human diversity.  In that social framework, none of us are “special” as we are all equal siblings in the diverse family of humanity.

Source: “He ain’t special, he’s my brother” – Time to ditch the phrase “special needs” – Starting With Julius

Having “special needs” classrooms upholds neurotypicality, for instance, as the dominant model of existence. Drugging our children because of their attention deficit is upholding a neurotypical norm. Sending our black and indigenous children to juvenile detention centers in disproportionate numbers is upholding a neurotypical norm which takes, as neurotypicality always does, whiteness as the standard.

Source: Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm – Los Angeles Review of Books

Because the pathology paradigm has been dominant for some time, many people, even many who claim to advocate for the empowerment of Autistic people, still habitually use language that’s based in the assumptions of that paradigm. The shift from the pathology paradigm to the neurodiversity paradigm calls for a radical shift in language, because the appropriate language for discussing medical problems is quite different from the appropriate language for discussing diversity. The issue of “person-first language” is a good basic example to start with.

If a person has a medical condition, we might say that “she has cancer,” or she’s “a person with allergies,” or “she suffers from ulcers.” But when a person is a member of a minority group, we don’t talk about their minority status as though it were a disease. We say “she’s Black,” or “she’s a lesbian.” We recognize that it would be outrageously inappropriate – and likely to mark us as ignorant or bigoted – if we were to refer to a Black person as “having negroism” or being a “person with negroism,” or if we were to say that someone “suffers from homosexuality.”

So if we use phrases like “person with Autism,” or “she has Autism,” or “families affected by Autism,” we’re using the language of the pathology paradigm – language that implicitly accepts and reinforces the assumption that Autism is intrinsically a problem, a Something-Wrong-With-You. In the language of the neurodiversity paradigm, on the other hand, we speak of neurodiversity in the same way we would speak of ethnic or sexual diversity, and we speak of Autistics in the same way we would speak of any social minority group: I am Autistic. I am an Autistic. I am an Autistic person. There are Autistic people in my family.

These linguistic distinctions might seem trivial, but our language plays a key role in shaping our thoughts, our perceptions, our cultures, and our realities. In the long run, the sort of language that’s used to talk about Autistics has enormous influence on how society treats us, and on the messages we internalize about ourselves. To describe ourselves in language that reinforces the pathology paradigm is to use the master’s tools, in Audre Lorde’s metaphor, and thus to imprison ourselves more deeply in the master’s house.

Source: Throw Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm

It is also to acknowledge and discuss the fact that the disability rights movement has been having conversations about language and disability terminology for decades, and that many nondisabled people are (perhaps willfully) unaware of these conversations. They come up with complex and tormented euphemisms to talk about disability instead of just asking a disabled person if there’s an appropriate term. Many nondisabled people are shocked that many people with disabilities, including myself, view ‘special’ as a rank insult that is horrifying to encounter. This word makes me so angry. So angry.

Thus, when I say ”special’ troubles me,’ I mean ‘please do not use this term to refer to me, because I find it personally insulting, and I have an identity, that identity is disabled, please respect my identity by using the word I self identify with to refer to me’ and I also mean ‘I would vastly prefer that you consider not using it as a default/general term, but use it for self identification if you identify with it, and to describe other people who self identify with it.’ And, in return, if I know that someone identifies as special needs or with any other term involving ‘special,’ I will refer to that person that way, because I believe that respecting self identification is a critical thing. However, I note that I don’t personally know anyone who identifies with this term; I see it being used by nondisabled friends and family, applied as a label by others and not claimed as a self identification.

So, here’s what I, personally, don’t like about special: I feel like it’s an isolating word. I feel that the concept of ‘special’ stands in the way of full integration into society, and it also perpetuates some very harmful myths. It sets people with disabilities aside and stresses that they are different and alien. That using a wheelchair, for example, is ‘special’ and different and weird.

This word, to me, stresses a hierarchy of normality. And, thanks to the way that it has become twisted, it has become a singularly loaded word. Everything from ramps to quiet rooms for taking exams is considered ‘special treatment’ and sneered at. Nondisabled people think that we are pulling off some kind of giant scam here and that’s reinforced when we talk about, for example, ‘special education.’

The very idea that accommodations are ‘special’ stresses that they should not be expected. That they are a prize or treat. That you don’t deserve them. I want to see accommodations normalised. I want to see it assumed that everyone who wants to participate in something is able to do so, that no barriers are presented by other participants or the venue. I don’t want that to be ‘special.’ I want it to be ordinary.

Likewise, the idea of referring to human beings as ‘special’ is one I find troubling, not least because this term has become weaponised. I have trouble parsing whether it is being used as a celebration of identity or an insult whenever I encounter it.

Source: Ableist Word Profile: Special | FWD/Forward

The “special needs” language falls into normativity. There’s a “normal” and a “right” way to do things, and that way is how able people do it. If you don’t do it that way, suddenly it’s “special” because it’s different and scary.

“Special needs” is part of this dichotomy which is used to split able and disabled. Indeed, to alienate disability. Disability is different and “special” and hard and weird. “Special” is an isolating word, in fact, because it sets people apart, and not necessarily in a good way, no matter what the original meaning of the word is.

Think “special bus” or “special education,” both of which are used to isolate developmentally disabled folks from their peers, often under the argument that they are “hard to control” or “disruptive” or “upsetting” or, sometimes, just “gross.” People use “special” to push these folks away, to isolate them somewhere where they cannot bother the nice able people.

It’s one of the many euphemisms for disability which is used to create a veil of obscurity. Disability as Other. Indeed, “special needs,” a term which  people often use because they are fumbling for something else to use, looking for the “right” way to say it, is intensely othering.

Source: Needs Are Not Special | FWD/Forward

For one night, the special needs community will shine! And then the day after, they will go back to being ignored by much of their communities.

Here’s the real problem for me – why put this money behind isolated, segregated, events? I know Tebow et al. think they are doing good here, and I’m sure the people who go will have a good time. But it accomplishes nothing other than a brief moment of fake normality.

“Prom” didn’t matter to me, but to many people prom = normal highschool experience. So if people with disabilities are being excluded from such activities, if that’s something they want, then the solution is to put time and money behind making such events more inclusive and more accessible.

A segregated special event for special needs, no matter how well intentions, just reinforces the idea that people with disabilities cannot function in “normal” society.

Source: How Did We Get Into This Mess?:  Special Proms for Special Needs – Good Intentions but a Bad Idea

There’s a social media campaign going on right now to #SayTheWord – it was started by Lawrence Carter-Long, the Public Affairs Manager for the National Council on Disability, and is an active Twitter hashtag. The word, of course, is disabled.

The importance of this campaign is driven home to me over and over again as I see people performing ludicrous and painful contortions to avoid saying it. Reminder that when I make a criticism the way well-meaning people interact with disability, I am not attacking the people (parenthetical reminder that I was immersed in ableism myself not long ago), but inviting people to think about things in a different way.

Instead of saying disabled, nice people say things like:

  • differently abled
  • handicapable (yes, really)
  • physically/mentally challenged
  • special needs

It’s that last one, special needs, that I really want to take aim at, because I believe that seemingly innocuous phrase does serious damage to disability rights.

Every time someone says “special needs,” they reinforce the false notion that disabled people are asking for “extras” when we require accommodations, modifications, and/or support to access the same things that non-disabled people are able to access, such as education, public spaces, community involvement, and so on.

That’s the first problem, because access is not “special” for disabled people. It’s our right. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects disabled Americans from discrimination, requires us to be accommodated in the workplace, and grants us equal access to public spaces and institutions. Other countries have laws in place to protect disability rights in similar ways.

The second problem is, the phrase “special needs” flies in the face of the social model of disability. The social model says, the disabled person’s inability to access things is due not to the disabled person’s failings, flaws, or deficits, but on the environment’s failure to provide access to the things. For example, a Blind person is not disabled because they can’t see, they are disabled because the world was set up by seeing people for seeing people and is made of many things that are inaccessible to non-seeing people.

Source: #SayTheWord, Not “Special Needs”

My son, who has Down syndrome, is 10. By the time he was 3 (thanks in part to spending his first few years reading everything I could get my hands on), it was pretty clear to me that while he had particular needs, they weren’t all that special. He needs an education, safe housing, independence, meaningful community, health care, and basically all the other stuff that everyone else needs. Our means to get him there might vary and require specific techniques, tools, and resources, but it’s not because his needs are so “special.”

Moreover, as a euphemism, “special” has become its own brand of insult. Anecdotally, I increasingly see people substituting the word where they might have used the word “retard,” because ableism can always survive the shifting of norms. “Special,” appended before “snowflake,” was the “defining insult” of 2016, according to The Guardian. “Special” connotes both undesirably different and unjustly self-centered.

In fact, there’s a broad cross-disability movement dedicated to working against euphemisms like “special needs” or “differently-abled.” While the origins of the expression “special needs” are complicated and debated, Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability, explained to me that it’s clear “the term was never chosen by our community; it was chosen by educators, family members, and other professionals who felt uncomfortable by the use of the term ‘disability.’”

It’s not just about law, either. Lawrence Carter-Long launched the #SayTheWord campaign in 2016 to get people to use “disability” or “disabled” rather than dodging the issue. He told me that in the past, “Disability was only a diagnosis, but it now equals identity, it equals community, it equals history, it equals constituency. So part of saying the word is the recognition of the evolution of what the word has become.” He’s equally opposed to special needs, as a concept, because, “A need isn’t special, if other people get to take the same thing for granted.”

The #NotSpecialNeeds video doesn’t say the word disability, but I don’t know that it needs to do so. It’s an impressive piece of work, chipping away at the euphemism “special needs” with hilarity, positing scenarios that would qualify as special, like needing massages from cats or celebrities to conduct wake-up calls (the latter scene features John C. McGinley, the actor from Scrubs, whose son has Down syndrome).

Source: Stop Calling Some Needs ‘Special’

As Linton explains, “terms such as physically challenged, … handicapable, and special … are rarely used by disabled activists and scholars. Although they may be considered well-meaning attempts (by people without disabilities) to inflate the value of people with disabilities,” these terms “can be understood only as a euphemistic formulation, obscuring the reality” that disabled people are not “considered desirable.”

We predicted and observed that persons of all ages are viewed more negatively when they are described as having special needs than when they are described as having a disability or having a certain disability.

Our research supports many style guides (and disability scholars) who prescribe not using the euphemism special needs. In addition to its negative connotations, we argued special needs is imprecise; it can refer to groups as unrelated as minority and bi-racial children in the realm of child adoption; middle-age adults and persons without personal transportation in the realm of disaster preparedness; and pregnant women and people with nut allergies in the realm of airline travel).

Special needs also connotes segregation. Most special programs (e.g., Special Olympics and special education) segregate persons with disabilities from persons without disabilities. Special needs also implies special rights. In our research article, we pointed to an OpEd in The Chronicle of Higher Education that misconstrues legally mandated disability rights as special rights, as well as similar misconstruals observed in common vernacular.

We concluded that special needs has become a dysphemism, similar to lame (e.g., a lame idea), crippled, blind (e.g., blind to evidence), and deaf (e.g., deaf to reason). Our research did not explore whether non-disabled people’s use of special needs is intentional (although some instances clearly imply negative intentionality). Perhaps, as Simi Linton suggests, non-disabled people’s ambivalence about disability rather than sharp repulsion underlies their use of the term special needs. Regardless of speakers’ and writers’ motivation, our research recommends not using the euphemism special needsand instead using the non-euphemized term disability.

Source: Special needs, euphemisms, and disability

Although euphemisms are intended to put a more positive spin on the words they replace, some euphemisms are ineffective. Our study examined the effectiveness of a popular euphemism for persons with disabilities, special needs. Most style guides prescribe against using the euphemism special needs and recommend instead using the non-euphemized term disability; disability advocates argue adamantly against the euphemism special needs, which they find offensive. In contrast, many parents of children with disabilities prefer to use special needs rather than disability. But no empirical study has examined whether special needs is more or less positive than the term it replaces. Therefore, we gathered a sample of adult participants from the general population (N = 530) and created a set of vignettes that allowed us to measure how positively children, college students, and middle-age adults are viewed when they are described as having special needs, having a disability, having a certain disability (e.g.is blindhas Down syndrome), or with no label at all. We predicted and observed that persons are viewed more negatively when described as having special needs than when described as having a disability or having a certain disability, indicating that special needs is an ineffective euphemism. Even for members of the general population who have a personal connection to disability (e.g., as parents of children with disabilities), the euphemism special needs is no more effective than the non-euphemized term disability. We also collected free associations to the terms special needs and disability and found that special needs is associated with more negativity; special needs conjures up more associations with developmental disabilities (such as intellectual disability) whereas disability is associated with a more inclusive set of disabilities; and special needs evokes more unanswered questions. These findings recommend against using the euphemism special needs.

Source: “Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism | Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications | Full Text

They are not “special” needs. They are needs I have because of disability. Saying it differently doesn’t change the fact. Saying it differently actually perpetuates the stigma around disability, increases the likelihood people will continue to see me as other and broken, and decreases the chance my needs will be met.

Too often proclaiming a person has “special needs” is the trigger for people to give up, asserting that sometimes there is “just no solution” and that the disabled person will have to “learn to cope” and “develop their skills” so they can “fit in to society” and “have a hope of getting a job and making friends”. When in fact there is always a solution that respects the rights of the disabled person, and we regularly live meaningful valuable lives as ourselves without having to change and fit in to societies unrealistic expectations and arbitrary rules of existence.

All people have needs. When their needs are met, all people live their lives well. All people receive help to see their needs met from time to time. Our society works on shared ideas, spaces and resources. Assisting a non-disabled person to see their needs met is not perceived as heroic, patient or inherently good. It is called living life in community.

Source: My needs are not “special” – Michelle Sutton 

During these 12 years, many things have changed, my vocabulary too. I don’t use the word “normal” anymore, I use “typical”; I don’t use the word “special” anymore, I use “disabled”; I don’t use the word “gift” and I don’t consider my daughter as a superheroine; I’m not a “special mother” and my daughter is a girl with Down syndrome who lives her life with the same need to belong as everyone else. Euphemisms are not helpful so let’s call things by their name – disability #saythewordit’s what disability activists ask for. To tell it like it is allows me to look at things without hiding, to face life in a direct way. And it allows Emma to do the same. I feel as if I am respecting my daughter more, as if I am giving her the chance to define her own identity over time, of which disability is part.

Source: NotSpecialNeeds

Adults with disabilities ask that you say “disability” and not “special needs” when you are talking about disability. As Louisa Shiffer said,

Disabled people should control the conversation about their disabilities, and the language used about them, not their parents.

“Handi-capable”, “People of all abilities”, “Different abilities”, “Differently abled” and “special needs” were made up outside of the disabled community, by people without disabilities. Their continued use, and the defense of their use by people without disabilities reeks of able-splaining; that is, people without disabilities explaining disability to people withdisabilities.

Then the word “disability” makes complete sense. Those of us living with a disability are absolutely living a dual existence: we move through the mainstream world which is largely inaccessible and not disabled, and we have our own experience with the fact of our bodies.

We see, hear, speak, think, learn, process, read, write, move, and/or feel in ways that are less common than most. We have a lot to offer, by dint of our experience with disability and where our interests lie. Our needs are not special, so please: say the word, as we are asking you to.

Disability.

Source: 3 Reasons to Say “Disability” Instead of “Special Needs”

Why, oh why is this still such a common term? It makes no sense to me. By much the same logic that explains why “differently-abled” is inaccurate, it’s clear that “special needs” is too. If you are a human, you have needs. Everyone has needs. What makes mine so “special” just because I have a disability? Nothing.

My needs are not “special” just because they’re not met in ways identical to the needs of non-disabled people. I need a ramp; you need steps. Not special, just facts. I need a wheelchair; you walk. Not special, just facts. Moreover, the needs of non-disabled people certainly aren’t all met in the same ways. Just like every other living, breathing human being on this planet, I am a person who has needs that must be fulfilled in ways appropriate to my abilities.

Whether you’re disabled or non-disabled, I urge you to realize why euphemisms really aren’t a show of respect, no matter how well meaning your intent might be. They can be disempowering, patronizing, and even hurtful. So please, just call me a disabled woman, because that’s who I am, and that’s who I’m proud to be.

Source: 4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust | Center for Disability Rights

“Special needs” is a patronising euphemism. Special, by definition, means “better, greater or different from what is usual”. In reality, ‘special’ in the context of “Special Needs” is a disingenuous use of the word. What people seem to mean when they say ‘special needs’ is that people with impairments require more attention, they are more expensive to care for and are more difficult to provide for than those without impairments. So what is the result? A situation where people with impairments are excluded because they have “special needs” they are more difficult than those without “special needs”.

However, in reality, we all share the same needs. Everybody requires water, food, shelter and love, in order to survive. In parts of Africa, we have seen disabled young people who have been isolated. They have had no food or drink and no love. These people are not special, their needs are the same as all of ours.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of people (including me) use certain terms with the very best intentions, sometimes it is counter-productive. Merely labelling a group of people – disabled people – as “special” implies they are recognised as being far different from everybody else. The consequence of this is that they will be treated differently, ensuring that the stigma (which exists in all cultures to varying degrees) remains. This is the opposite of inclusion, despite the fact that inclusion is often the aim when using the term “special needs”.

Terminology and language are so important: once we separate people in discourse and our minds, we then start to separate people in practice. History shows us that this is a dangerous thing to do.

Source: We need to rethink the term ‘special needs’ – here’s why — Disability Africa

I believe that a reason why, as a society, we have not embraced children with disabilities as full participants in our schools and communities has to do with the limitations of our own mental models around disability.

We have moved from hiding and institutionalizing kids to a world where children with disabilities are seen as special and placed in special settings and given special services with special caregivers and they, and their families, have become disenfranchised from the community at large and they have become in fact their own separate community.

I believe that “special” has become a euphemism for “separate,” and when we separate kids and we place them in separate settings and give them separate services we are teaching them that their place is over there, with people like them and not as part of the full community, and when young, impressionable children learn that their needs are too great that they are too different and that they don’t meet our very narrow definition of what normal is, this has a life-long effect on their ability to contribute positively to society.

Source: Isn’t it a pity? The real problem with special needs | Torrie Dunlap | TEDxAmericasFinestCity – YouTube, transcript

Although euphemisms are intended to put a more positive spin on the words they replace, some euphemisms are ineffective. Our study examined the effectiveness of a popular euphemism for persons with disabilities, special needs. Most style guides prescribe against using the euphemism special needs and recommend instead using the non-euphemized term disability; disability advocates argue adamantly against the euphemism special needs, which they find offensive. In contrast, many parents of children with disabilities prefer to use special needs rather than disability. But no empirical study has examined whether special needs is more or less positive than the term it replaces. Therefore, we gathered a sample of adult participants from the general population (N = 530) and created a set of vignettes that allowed us to measure how positively children, college students, and middle-age adults are viewed when they are described as having special needs, having a disability, having a certain disability (e.g., is blind, has Down syndrome), or with no label at all. We predicted and observed that persons are viewed more negatively when described as having special needs than when described as having a disability or having a certain disability, indicating that special needs is an ineffective euphemism. Even for members of the general population who have a personal connection to disability (e.g., as parents of children with disabilities), the euphemism special needs is no more effective than the non-euphemized term disability. We also collected free associations to the terms special needs and disability and found that special needs is associated with more negativity; special needs conjures up more associations with developmental disabilities (such as intellectual disability) whereas disability is associated with a more inclusive set of disabilities; and special needs evokes more unanswered questions. These findings recommend against using the euphemism special needs.

Source: “Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism

See also,