5 Reasons I Refused to Let My Son Be Labeled 'Special Needs'

Boy at computer

When my oldest son was 6 years old, he was diagnosed with an Auditory Processing Disorder.

We'd taken him to see a specialist because we suspected he had trouble hearing. He'd suffered repeated ear infections as a toddler, which led to a speech delay that he'd already received Early Intervention Services for.

By first grade, his speech delay was mostly under control, but we were told that the Auditory Processing Disorder required treatment and that if I agreed to have him classified as Special Needs, he would become eligible for a host of services, therapies, extra time on school tests, and other accommodations.

I refused.


I didn't make my decision lightly. My husband and I went back and forth on the pros and cons, weighing what we wanted for our son, not just as a student, but as a human being against the numerous experts who insisted they knew best. They listed a host of things that could still go wrong and insisted on multiple preventive measures "just in case." At worst, they told us we should let them monitor him. Monitor him for what? Well, they couldn't articulate that part exactly, but they would be able to spot potential problems much better than we could, so why don't we just sit back and let them handle it?

The pressure was intense. As a parent, you want to do what's best for your child. But what about when your gut instinct differs from that of people who keep telling you they know better? The path of least resistance would have been to simply give in and let said experts take over. After all, what could it hurt? Even if the therapy ultimately proved unnecessary, so what? No harm done.

Ultimately, I decided there would, in fact, be harm done. I refused to have my son labeled Special Needs for the following reasons:

1. His Needs Didn't Seem That Special
My son's diagnosis wasn't our first time at the Special Needs Rodeo. The Early Intervention therapy he'd received prior to starting school had culminated with the assigned therapist noticing that my son had a hard time sitting still for the duration of their half-hour long lesson. She recommended sensory therapy. Did I mention he was 3? A 3-year-old boy had trouble sitting still. Quick, bring in the therapists! She also thought he might need physical therapy ... because he held a crayon in his fist rather than with the proper grip. When my son was 6, I conceded that he was not a good listener. (Though he could sit now. And hold a pencil correctly.) It was often necessary to repeat instructions to him, and he'd still get confused. But he was a 6-year-old boy. He certainly wasn't the only one I could see with this problem -- 6-year-old boys aren't exactly known for their stellar executive function skills. He seemed like a perfectly normal boy to me.

2. Every Child Has Special Needs
My oldest son has trouble with oral instructions. Other kids have a hard time decoding text, or with handwriting, or when performing calculations. All human beings are stronger at some things and weaker at others. When did it become mandatory to level the playing field so that everyone performs the same on every task, whether academic or athletic? When did absent-mindedness or boredom or stubbornness or plain, old laziness become "conditions" to be excused and then accommodated? I didn't want my son to be told that if he wasn't good at something, that was okay, it wasn't his fault, he couldn't help it. I wanted him to be told to work harder.

3. I Wanted Him to Fail
Failure is awesome. Failure is how we learn. It builds character and resilience. At our house, we go around the dinner table and share one way in which we failed that day, and how we plan to do better next time. I wanted my son to fail. That's why we sent him to the most rigorous school that would take him. One that gave instruction primarily orally. When my son complained, I told him it was better to develop techniques and coping strategies now rather than later when he was a set-in-his-ways adult. He cried. I sympathized. And then I told my son to go back into the classroom and apply himself even more.

4. I Wanted Him to Succeed
The rigorous private school my son attended from kindergarten through eighth grade was the same one his father had gone to. My son got in as a legacy. Considering how awful his test scores were at the age of 4, he never would have made it in any other way. Experts advised us he wouldn't be able to cut it there. My son did make it. When it came to applying for high school, he sat for an exam that 40,000 students take and he scored in the top 3%, which qualified him for the city's best public specialized school. He didn't get in as a legacy. He didn't get in because he was given extra time on a test or because the bar had been lowered due to his perceived disability. He got in because he studied like a fiend -- he was self-directed and self-organized. (Oh, and about that pencil grip that required physical therapy? He was also accepted into the city's top art school.)

5. The Real World Doesn't Care if You Have Special Needs
All the way through college, a special needs diagnosis means extra time on tests, deadline extensions for term papers, truncated reading assignments, the use of a tape recorder instead of taking notes, and getting excused from classes otherwise necessary for graduation. But then what? If my heart stops beating during surgery, do I really want a doctor who requires twice the usual time to figure out what to do about it? Should my accountant be able to do higher-level math or is guessing what I owe on my taxes good enough? If lawyers bill by the hour, does that mean a special needs one is legally permitted to charge double? Can you tell your boss you're not required to do as he says because, hey, Oppositional Defiance Disorder?!

For the rest of his life, my son will know that he achieved something difficult completely on his own. My hope is that when times get rough -- and they will -- he'll remember what he's already accomplished against the odds and persevere.

Did you have your child labeled "special needs"? Why or why not?

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