Springboard for Post: The Special in Special Needs

According to an online etymology dictionary, the first recorded use of the word “special” in English was around 1200 and meant “better than ordinary” from Old French, especial, “particular, unusual.” Around one hundred year later, it seems folks used it to mean “marked off from others by some distinguishing quality.” In 1972, “special education” was coined to refer to those whose learning is impeded by some mental or physical handicap.

I both love and hate the word “special.” My distain for it starts, I think, with the sound of it. For some reason, my mouth has a tough time with the second syllable and I tend to “shhh” it out a bit. I have to concentrate to enunciate clearly. Plus, the word—even when pronounced properly—
sounds soft and precious, like something one would aspire to be, like someone a person would want. I don’t feel that Holden’s challenges make him “better than ordinary” (although other qualities do, of course!). To be honest, raising a Special Needs Child doesn’t feel special. I love parenting Holden and he’s an incredible kid; I feel lucky to be his mom but not lucky that my child has to suffer. When people say to me, “God wouldn’t give you something you couldn’t handle,” I want to scream in rage. I calm myself down by imagining a white-bearded man in a long flowing robe going through a Divine Rolodex saying, “Okay, okay. Who gets the next kid with epilepsy and LKS? Christine? Totally. She can handle that as long as I don’t give her any more kids after that.” (Remember: raw and honest, raw and honest…take a deep breath.)

I wish we could go back and use the words closely associated with “special” in 1200. Perhaps the Old French used the word as I wish to use it: My son has particular needs; my son has unusual needs. These communicate for more specifically than “special needs.”

But now the phrase/word is so common that it’s become code for parents and people “in the community” of Special Needs. And I think those are the meanings that circulate—particular, unusual. Last weekend, I took Holden to the annual Arts Festival in Brookings. We navigated the crowds and the mud-paths (it rained over three inches the night before!) with relative ease—I even got to glance at some of the crafts for sale—until we passed the back of the face-painting booth. Holden ran up to it like a linebacker blitzing into a line of scrimmage—ready to cut in front of all the other kids and snag a seat. When I stood between him and the seat, he screamed long and loud; when I looked up, twenty concerned faces were staring at me. “Don’t worry about it. Totally normal. Happens all time,” I said, Holden still pushing against me to get into the open chair. (I felt a lot like Leslie Nielsen’s character in Naked Gun 2 ½ “Please disperse. There’s nothing to see here.”) I finally got Holden to take his actual place in line, and he played with his iPad until it was his turn. As he squirmed into the spaces between the tightly organized tables to take his seat, I followed. “Is it okay if I stand next to him?” I asked the woman with the palette of paint. “Yes. And don’t worry. I used to teach special ed.” Code. Code that meant: I understand he has particular needs and I won’t expect him to behave like a typical eight-year-old. Code that meant: I will watch the ways you communicate with him and take cues from you. Code that meant: I will interact with him without judgment and with extra patience.

As soon as she said that, I exhaled a ton of stress. I spent the next few minutes just happily watching Holden get his face painted instead of looking for ways to manage his public interaction.

The “Code of Special” is extra-important for folks whose “particular needs” aren’t obvious by looking at them. Later on in the afternoon, I remembered this positive moment when confronted with judgment. A woman shopping next to me in an art booth looked at Holden (carrying around his iPad) and then looked me in the eyes then back at Holden, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting it, but it felt like she was chastising me for allowing my son to have ‘screen time’ at the Arts Festival.

I’m interested in hearing other takes on “special.”

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One Response to Springboard for Post: The Special in Special Needs

  1. I like the use of the word “special” better than some of the alternatives that have, thankfully, fallen out of use. It is not perfect, certainly, but not derogatory. “Retarded” seemed to imply a lack of development but never indicated that a person was still capable of anything aside from their specific issue. At least the word “special” allows the person being described to still be a complete human being. Special doesn’t indicate a deficiency to me so much as a difference from “average”. “Learning disabled” seems harsh to me, like “my learning disabled child is labeled as such and is stuck in this box and will always be there. This term doesn’t imply that there is anything to hope for, i.e. once autistic, always autistic. Bam! Labeled for life.

    “Special” indicates a need, a difference, but does not pigeonhole a person into a diagnosis per se. Yes, Holden has LKS, but he is so much more than just his diagnosis. He is special, certainly. And his “specialness” will grow and change with him over the years. To call Holden “special” is to label him with a label that doesn’t define itself.

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