Autism Unexpected: What Does “Special Needs” Really Mean?


I was filling out a survey recently and was stopped short by question 13: “How many of your children have special needs (diagnosed or undiagnosed)?”

I honestly didn’t know how to answer that question. I’ve believed for a while now that all three of my children (and I) have “spectrum-y” behaviors, although I don’t know that any of us are diagnosable, other than my autistic middle child.

I could easily have answered the question if it was asking about diagnoses. In that case, I could have clicked “1.” I have one child with an autism diagnosis.

It gets hazier after that, however. “Special needs” is so nebulous a term, so open to interpretation, that it is difficult to definitively state which of my children has special needs. I know some people don’t like the term at all, but I use it frequently because it is a simple, understandable way to describe my middle son without going into too much detail. But is this question showed me that maybe it isn’t that simple.

I have two children with IEPs, which puts them both in the special education system, but I don’t know that this automatically makes a child “special needs.” My youngest child, who will be entering kindergarten in the fall, now gets occupational therapy services from his school, along with special education monitoring to make sure that he stays at a developmentally appropriate level.

Yes, he’s quirky and he has some fine motor difficulties, but does that make him special needs? I guess if you look at the technical definition, his needs are special. He gets therapy. I tend to look at the phrase “special needs” differently, however. To me, it indicates a long-term condition. I’m not sure that my youngest son’s issues will be long term—but they could be.

Then there’s my oldest son. He is the only one of my three children who qualified for the county early intervention program when he was two, for a speech delay. The therapy worked; now he won’t stop talking. I don’t know anyone who would look at my oldest son right now and call him special needs, but seven years ago, the Infants and Toddlers Program sure did.

I don’t even remember how I answered the survey question. In the greater scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that even if I can’t answer question 13, I do know that I am looking at my kids as a whole and making sure they get everything that will help them grow up to be happy and successful. My purpose as a parent is to meet my children’s needs—special or not.

I’m curious. What does “special needs” mean to you?

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on July 12, 2010.

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