I recently had a conversation with another member of the workout facility I regularly attend. I have met this man on several occasions, and we have talked about our children vaguely as we cross paths in the facility. The other day he stopped me to ask my opinion on local summer camps, as he was planning to send his daughter to one this summer for the first time. I explained that I was very picky with camp options because I had a child with special needs who benefited from a more structured environment. I was caught completely off-guard when the man replied “Oh, what are his problems?”
After some reflection I have drafted the following response that I wish I would have been able to deliver after his question.
What are his problems? I would say that his main obstacle is living in a world where members of society often view him as “broken” or needing to be fixed. Too often people assume many things about my son based purely on a diagnosis or label that has been attached to him. My son is so much more than a label. He is a dynamic, entertaining, intelligent, creative, inquisitive, persistent young man. Being treated as a diagnosis instead of a human is often a problem that he faces.
If you are asking what his diagnosis is, he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at the age of 3. Two years after that he was labeled as “gifted and talented” as a result of his score on several intelligence tests. One year after that he was diagnosed with ADHD after his hyperactive and impulsive behaviors led his teachers to suggest grade retention in hopes to reduce his disruptive behaviors.
In addition to the challenges that life presents to every human, my son will face challenges in his life, some of which are directly related to his diagnosis such as forming and maintaining social relationships. Other challenges, however, will be placed on him by societal expectations that do not accept deviations from the derived “norm”. Every member of society should be treated with dignity and respect. Labels and diagnoses may be helpful for providing a quick generalizable starting point when understanding a person’s characteristics – but these labels/diagnoses should not be used as a replacement for human interaction and personal experience to understand a person’s strengths/needs. We can all work to find a balance between offering assistance or accommodations (when appropriate) and maintaining high expectations for all individuals.
As you interact with people in your life, even those that you have brief encounters with, I encourage you to consider the language you are using and what that language conveys. The gentleman at the gym likely did not mean to offend me, but his choice to connect my label of “special needs” with “problems” confirmed my ongoing concern that the challenges that my son will face are exacerbated in a society that automatically deems his exceptionality as something “unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome”. All humans have “problems” by this definition. His exceptionality influences the way that he experiences and interacts in this world, but it should not limit his potential or our perceptions of his worth.
Updated: August 13, 2018