What To Call A Child With Special Needs

I think that there’s an image problem with special needs. OK, I’m not talking an Anthony Weiner sort of problem. I’m talking about the words.

“Special needs” just doesn’t sound cool, although out of all the terms, I tend to use it a lot because it’s the most recognized term. “Differently-abled” is cooler but harder to explain and I don’t always want to explain. “Disabled” emphasizes negativity, and “handicapped” just seems outdated to me.

I know, I know: Why are labels necessary? Sometimes, they just are. I don’t always want to say “Max has cerebral palsy”—vague terminology comes in handy for forms, special accommodations at places, nosy people.

I’ve had many lively discussions with other parents, and all of us seem to agree there should be a better term. I recently met a mom who describes her child as “freaky-perfect.” That one didn’t work for me, as I think “freak” has some bad associations. A lot of people in the autism community describe kids as having “quirks,” which I think is awesome but that term doesn’t fit Max, who has cerebral palsy. I mean, it’s quirky that he wants spaghetti for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but his spastic muscles? Not so much.

I’ve been known to say Max has “special powers”—a lot of people liked that term when I threw it out there, but then I got some scathing criticism from an adult with disabilities who said, among many things, that it made it sound as if people with disabilities have the power to fly or shoot lightning bolts from their fingertips. I still thought it could work well for a child. Although it would be really cool if Max could shoot lightning bolts from his fingertips.

When I talk about Max to his little sis, I tend to say that Max is just like other kids but some things take him longer to do. Sabrina knows the term “special needs” and used to tell people “Max needs special needs,” which really didn’t work.

One wording tactic that I have no qualms about is ”people first” language—that means you put the person in front of the disability. So instead of saying “a special needs child” you say “a child with special needs.” And instead of saying “An autistic adult” you say “An adult with autism.” I never knew about it till I had Max, but once I did, it seemed like a respectful thing to do.

If you have a kid with special needs or who’s differently abled or who has special powers, etc., what terms do you use when you have to? If you are a parent of so-called typical kids, what words do you use to describe children you know who have special needs?

Add a Comment
Back To To The Max
  1. by kadiera

    On July 5, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    We often use the term “medically complex” and have used “medically fragile” in the past, but again, while they’re appropriate for our little one (trach, g-tube, formerly ventilator & oxygen dependent, oral dysphagia, etc etc etc), they’re not appropriate for all children with special needs.

  2. by Amy

    On July 5, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    I have usually said ( and I cannot stand handicapped either)
    My son has Autism, he has exceptional, different, unique, interesting, needs. I dont particularily like to special, all children are special…

  3. by Paul

    On July 5, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Honestly? People care too much about labels. They’re necessary, unfortunately, but who cares? Haters gonna hate, but as special needs parents (OH NO I SAID A BAD WORD) it’s our job to guide our kids through all the crap.

  4. by nicole dorsey

    On July 6, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Glad to see you blogging Ellen! Welcome to the tribe!

    IS it OK to call her a Special Needs child? Does it require caps?! Or quote marks even? Seriously…

  5. by Ellen - To The Max

    On July 7, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Nicole, that is an EXCELLENT question! Here’s something I never knew until I had Max. In the disability community, there’s something called “people first” language. That means you put the person before the disability in talking and writing. So instead of saying [a special needs child] you would say [a child with special needs].

  6. by Sarah

    On July 7, 2011 at 10:26 am

    As an adult with a pretty severe disability, I have never been terribly concerned about labels, although for some reason I have always hated the term “handicapped.” I personally was not aware of “people first” language, but that’s what I’ve always preferred to use! Because, after all, we are people. We just happen to have disabilities. I find it much more respectful to refer to us as “people/children with disabilities/special needs/whatever” than “the disabled” or “disabled people.” But, I don’t think it does much good to get offended over it either… people don’t usually intend to use offensive language.

  7. by Stacy Rosenblum

    On July 11, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Thanks for this great blog post!

    At Aaron Academy in NYC, we consider each student’s individual strengths and define them according to what they are good at, or interested in – not what hinders them.
    In the “typically developing” community, students are encouraged to pursue areas of strengths and interest toward college majors and career paths, and we want the same for our students.

    On a related note, one term that is gaining hold in the ADHD, Autism, and Aspergers community is “Twice Exceptional” or “2e.” This term describes individuals who have exceptional gifts and talents, but also have “exceptional” struggles as well.

  8. by Cheryl D.

    On July 14, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    Really lovely article! Oftentimes, our kids defy descriptions!

    Thanks for the link-up to my blog though! It’s much appreciated!

    I can’t wait to meet you at BlogHer ’11!

  9. by Melissa

    On July 24, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I love what Stacy wrote! Dead on! I think the public in general spends too much time dwelling on limitations of children with special needs, and not enough focus on the strengths of children with special needs.

  10. by Sherri

    On December 21, 2011 at 10:06 am

    I say, “My son has special challeges.”

  11. by auriculares dr dre baratos

    On January 6, 2012 at 7:31 am

    I was very happy to find this web-site.I wished to thanks for your time for this excellent learn!! I definitely having fun with every little bit of it and I’ve you bookmarked to take a look at new stuff you blog post.