20 September 2012

Special Needs

We interrupt this daily blog challenge to address a pressing issue.  That pressing issue is the definition of "special needs children." In response to an op-ed piece that appeared in yesterday's New York Times claiming that our public schools focus too heavily on learning-disabled children and not enough on intellectually gifted children, a number of people have told me, on Facebook and in person, that gifted children have "special needs" too and need to be segregated out from the general public school system so that they are not dragged down by the "dumbed-down system" designed to "be all things to all people." Gifted children, they say, need to be educated in special public schools so they are surrounded by other kids who are "just like them" - to save them from the stigma of intelligence.

I have heard this before. I am not going to try to argue that our schools are or should be a level playing field, or that gifted children should not be pitied because they are not sufficiently challenged and segregated from the rest of the kids so that their needs can be met. Nor am I going to argue that intelligence is not stigmatized in our society (because it so obviously is). All I am going to do is to ask you to imagine what it is like to be the mother of a disabled child and be told by the parent of a typical (or even "gifted" child) that your child's presence in public school is dragging her child down.

Imagine suspecting that something is wrong with your young child and being told that you have an overactive imagination or that you're making it up to get attention. Imagine being told that by someone close to you, like a parent or a spouse. Imagine being told that if you were a better disciplinarian or a stronger presence in your child's life, your child would be talking or using the potty by now.

Imagine, if you will, holding a toddler in your lap and being told that this child that you have dreamed of having since you were a little girl is atypical in some way. Imagine hearing the word "autism" and having a neurologist shrug when you ask about the prognosis.

Imagine being told by a school official that your child's disability is your fault because you work outside the home and are not a dedicated enough mother. (Imagine being told that not in 1950, but in 2001.)

Imagine being told by relatives that your child is "incorrigible" or "difficult" and having people suggest that you don't bring him or her to family gatherings. Imagine a relative telling you that she's planning on taking the other children in the family on a trip, but your child will have to stay behind because the others don't like her and don't want her to come along.

Imagine the other class parents grousing about the fact that there's an aide in the classroom and giggling about the fact that the teacher wears a microphone. Imagine pretending not to know why the aide is there and giggling along about the microphone, just so they won't suspect your child has anything to do with it.

Imagine being made fun of for organizing and showing up at board-of-education meetings on a regular basis, just to educate yourself about procedures. Imagine every teacher in the district giving you the stink-eye whenever they see you, even in the supermarket, because they are sure you are going to ask questions or demand something "extra" for your child.

Imagine having to explain to your child the sarcastic remarks of other children and of other parents. Imagine having to explain to your child why the other children don't like him or her.

Imagine no playdates. Imagine asking for them and being told "no." Imagine teaching the Sunday school class, leading the scout troop, and chaperoning the trip, all because if you didn't, your child would not be able to participate. Imagine your child's participation being turned down routinely by music teachers, sports coaches, and anyone else who doesn't understand and is not obligated to put up with him.

Imagine running into the class bullies in the deli at the high-school lunchtime break and hearing them snicker and whisper, "there's so-and-so's mom."

Imagine teachers calling your child "stupid" to her face, in front of the rest of the class, or being told he will "never amount to anything." Imagine being criticized by the school system and gossiped about by the other parents for pulling your child out of that class.

Do you still think your soccer-star chess champion should be classified as having special needs? I would propose (modestly, and aware of the criticism that is going to rain down on me for writing this) that unless you have lain awake all night crying about a disability that will never get better, and wondering what will happen to your child when you are someday gone, that you should not throw the term "special needs" around too lightly.

School is usually the first place where children come to terms with the fact that all children are not alike. Saying that your gifted child deserves to be in a place where the other kids "are just like him" ignores an essential reality and an essential part of his education: all kids are not just like him. We all have a range of abilities and a range of gifts. We drag each other down, but we also pull each other up, on a daily and minute-by-minute basis, by showing each other what we have to offer and by teaching each other about our needs and abilities. We learn to live in a diverse society. That's what education is about.

Sure, your kid is special, and your kid has needs. All kids are special, and all kids have needs. But please, think about the pain you inflict - intentionally or not - by arguing that your child's success will be hampered by being educated alongside less able children. Those less able children have gifts too, and both they and their parents have feelings.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100% since I am a special needs teacher. The only thing to consider in terms of children who are gifted is that sometimes because of their lack of stimulation in the class they can start to have behavioral problems (sometimes I have seen them become serious problems). I have seen some kids that are gift who choose to "play dumb" and even join "gang" type groups just to fit in. I do not think that the answer is to have them go to a special school with kids "just like them," but to work on programs in the school that can challenge them. As you said all kids have strengths and weaknesses (academic, social leaders, artist, musically talented etc.) and they need to be nourished and helped so that they can develop to their greatest potention.

I have worked with many families when their child is an infant or toddler and they first find out that their child has a disability. It is a painful process that I do not wish on my worst enemy. Guiding them through the journey (usually with a listening ear, lots of compassion, and inormation) of trying to understand and accept their child's disability is heartbreaking. It is a process that never ends - ever. With each milestone- entering preschool,, the middle school year, adulthood, play dates, birthday parties, employmens, etc. the families have to go through the painful proces over and over again and they never know when or how it is going to affect them. Then there are parents that feel that something is not quite "typical" with their child, similar to what I believe you wrote about in this post and they have so few supports. We as a society do not talk with each other and support each other. It is amazing when we do finally get the courage to talk about something like a disability how many people there are who are familiar with it and support you. I just do not know where they are when my families are under a black cloud feeling COMPLETEKY alone.

Great post. Great blog. I've been reading, just usually not commenting ;-)


Andi-Roo TheWorldForRealz said...

Very powerful post. And you really nailed me to the wall on this one. As the parent of a "gifted" child, I have complained long & hard about the "dumbed down" public school curriculum. When it became clear that school wasn't going to push her nearly enough to keep her engaged, I began working even more with her at home, & this has been working out to our mutual benefit --- more challenging work for her, & quality time with my child for me.

But wow. Here I am on one side, making petty complaints, which are easily fixed by my mere involvement. And there you are on the other side, no fix in sight, only frustration & hurt. I... I want to apologize for not KNOWING. Not realizing. Not thinking about what it must be like. I feel like an asshole, quite frankly. Like that joke hashtag, #FirstWorldProblems. I am sorry. I am sorry for what you are going through, and for being insensitive, and for not being able to offer a better answer.

I thank you most humbly for writing this heart-wrenching post. I will be better because of it. And so will my child. I'm so grateful we met this past weekend.

marc zazeela said...


Unfortunately, the media only focus on the obvious issues without examining what lies beneath. Big headlines make big bucks.

Sadly, this is the way the world works. Whether special needs refers to the gifted or the challenged, reality says that there are ignorant bullies who get their kicks by knocking others.

My nephew is an extremely gifted kid who endured taunts and teasing until he got a little older and his peers recognized him for being exemplary. Additionally, he presented some behavioral problems because his school was not challenging him and he was bored. Enrolling him in more after school studies and extra curricular activities has stimulated him to greater accomplishments and has helped to alleviate some of the behavioral issues that stemmed from his boredom.

And, hard as it is to believe, there are plenty of adults who seem to take pleasure in making fun of those who are "different" from themselves.

Is it fair? No. Is it the way it is? Yes.

Regardless,what happens now. Today's geeky kids are tomorrows world leaders. Today's cool kids are tomorrows dog catchers.