If I were growing up today, and my Asperger’s/autistic status was known, I would probably be classified as having “special needs”.
I’m not sure I’m on board with this idea.
Let’s break it down, starting with the minimalist elements.
The word “special”, according to my friend Merriam-Webster, could take on any one or combination of several meanings:
1 – distinguished by some unusual quality; especially; being in some way superior; example: “our special blend”
2 – held in particular esteem; example: a special friend
3a – readily distinguishable from others of the same category; unique; example: “they set it apart as a special day of thanksgiving”
3b – of, relating to, or constituting a species; specific
4 – being other than the usual
5 – designed for a particular purpose or occasion
Of all of these, perhaps the fourth one, “being other than the usual”, might have merit.
Because lord knows I’m not like coffee (a “special blend”), nor am I “held in any particular esteem”, nor am I “designed for a particular purpose or occasion”, nor do I constitute the whole of a species, either human or other.
I might give them the part about being different from the usual. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go.
But then again, maybe not.
Now let’s build on that “special” concept, by considering the term “special needs”, which is defined as:
“a term used in clinical diagnostic and functional development to describe individuals who require assistance for disabilities that may be medical, mental, or psychological.”
Isn’t every human being an individual? And as such, don’t we all share some needs in common? And don’t we all also possess different needs that few other people have?
Let’s look at some examples.
All human beings across the planet need what are referred to as the Hierarchy of Needs: food, clothing (or some other means of temperature control), water, oxygen, sleep, and likely, shelter.
Almost as universally, but not quite, most humans need some kind of support, contact, love, and/or kinship. Unlike the first tier of more-physiologically-oriented needs listed in the preceding paragraph, these aren’t quite so crucial for physical survival. There are plenty of people who do without these elements, and physically, they’re OK. Many of them might even be emotionally OK. There are many others, however, who do without these elements at an invisible expense; those people often experience depression and isolation. Some of them are aware of it, and some aren’t.
And then there are individual needs. (There may be a few unmentioned needs-layers in between, but I honestly don’t know enough about the subject to elaborate further.)
These individual needs are variable and unique from person to person. Many of them could be perceived as luxuries, because they’re not crucial for survival, and one must have enough financial resources left over after taking care of the basic necessities.
My survival may not hinge on the availability of these individual needs, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t use them, that they couldn’t help me, and that my life would be worse off without them. To go without wouldn’t sacrifice my life in the physical sense, but it would sacrifice my wellbeing, my life in the mental, cognitive, and emotional sense.
For example, I need a gluten-free diet in order to keep my brain and nerves from eating themselves. If I didn’t adhere to such a diet, I would need a wheelchair to move around. Sure, I could forego both of these, and I would probably still live, as in my heart would keep beating, but I would be confined to my room, probably my bed, likely alone, with massive mood swings between intense irritability and debilitating depression, severe dementia, and a total loss of what makes me human.
What kind of life is that? As someone who loves to think, create, move, remember, joke around, and interact with people close to me, that gluten-inclusive, wheelchair-free, support-less life sounds like the definition of a personal hell.
But I don’t consider that a “special” diet. It’s just modified–modified for my individual needs.
Let’s take another example: education
Education is treated like a one-size-fits-all mediocrity, but that’s not the truth, and for many, it’s not even acceptable.
Growing up, I actually needed to be home-schooled by my mom. I didn’t get to do that beyond the age of five, so I suffered from then onward.
I had individual needs I didn’t know I had. There were subjects that I (much like many–and I would say most–other children) naturally excel at and are attracted to, and there are others that I need to approach more slowly, in smaller pieces, in order to grasp and absorb.
That doesn’t mean that I needed “special education”; it simply meant that I needed different education. Since every child has different interests and abilities, it seems to be a little condescending and “othering” to label one child as “special education”, while the rest get to avoid the stigma of the label. Meanwhile, they suffer, too, because their own different interests and challenges aren’t being met by the one-size-forces-all educational system. They might (or might not) suffer less, and it may (or may not) have an equally significant impact on them or their lives from then onward, but they suffer regardless.
I’m not sure what the solution is. Homeschooling, private schooling, or at least education conducted in smaller groups certainly appears to present one realistic, doable option. But it’s not an option for all, of course. Not everyone can afford to send their children to private schools with tiny student-to-teacher ratios, and not everyone has the luxury of assigning one of the parents to stay home and serve as the child’s educator.
So until I can offer any other solutions, I think that the best approach I can take for now is to highlight the potential downfalls inherent in the current system and bring some of these issues–and their aftermath–to light.