Home » Aspergers/HFA » ‘Special Needs’ what’s in a word

‘Special Needs’ what’s in a word


A couple of tweets from @sarasiobhan have got me thinking this morning. Basically, she deprecates the term ‘special needs’:

tweet special needs 1

I am currently using the term ‘special needs’ in my thesis as a way of differentiating the more general social space occupied by people with Aspergers/HFA and their parents and carers from ‘special educational needs’, which I find problematic as too school-centric, when many of the struggles in the domain are not centred on educational provision and emanate from just living with and raising a child who is perceived as different.

@sarasiobhan’s next tweet, in response to a tweet from me asking about alternative terms got me thinking even more:

tweet special needs 2

So what are my options. I have rejected ‘special educational needs’ because of its association with school and education. I find the term ‘additional needs’ too broad for my purposes – and, in any case, it contains in it that problematic word ‘needs’ with its negative undertones. I dislike ‘special’ because at the end of the day it is a pretty meaningless word.

Maybe I have to go back to my research question to try to think more clearly about appropriate language.

My focus is on parents of children and young people with diagnoses of Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism and the practitioners working with these children and my particular interest is the struggles both parents and practitioners find themselves engaged in, and how far these have origins in the systems set up to support these children and young people and how far they emanate outside those systems in wider community. Some of those struggles relate to the formal SEN system, but not all by any means.

I could speak about the ‘Aspergers/HFA domain’, but I am not sure that is a meaningful term. Maybe that doesn’t matter as whatever term I use is describing a social construction that doesn’t actually exist in the real world. But on the other hand, I need to use language which communicates and which also links some of what I am discussing with issues emerging in the current review of SEN provision and other related debates. In any case, I would find it difficult to talk of the ‘Aspergers/HFA system’, which again would be a construction, but does have a mechanistic tone I don’t find acceptable – but somehow I don’t react in the same way to ‘special needs system’ – hmmm.

I could speak of disability, but that is contentious when speaking of Aspergers/HFA, especially when those conditions may no longer exist when DSM-V is published.

Clearly, I’m not coming to any conclusions in these ramblings, but would be very interested in what language/terms others use and why.



  1. Lou McGill says:

    Hi Liz

    this is interesting and I will need to think further about it. I do have quite a negative response to the term special needs. So does my son who said the other day – ‘that boy talks to me like I’m special needs’. He clearly doesn’t see himself as having ‘special needs’, but has a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome.

    In terms of learning I think it is easier to think of other terms so perhaps turning it on it’s head – not about needs but about approaches
    ‘different approaches to learning’
    ‘alternative approaches to learning and teaching’
    we have had individual learning plans – which may be sham in some ways but does use different terminology

    or more broadly
    alternate services
    appropriate and diverse services
    individual requirements
    individual service approaches

    In the context of your PhD – i think it is very important to question the terminology but a key feature of service provision is that it is shaped by that terminology which reflects the way people percieve and categorise our children. As long as our childrens needs are seen as special then they can become marginalised. On the other hand – if we don’t recognise the needs of individuals then we can end up with the diabolical mainstreaming and inclusive policies that clearly don’t take into account invidivual requirements.

    The other issue is around the term ‘special needs’ covering a very diverse set of people with very different ‘needs’. I think having a term for HFA/aspergians or domain might at least distinguish in professionals eyes that it is different (as it would be for other diagnosis).

    So I will stop getting ranty but will think more about this too. Stop being interesting before breakfast – it’s distracting me; )

  2. Sara says:

    Sorry for getting all this thought stuff going on so early. I’m on leave so dozed off again after I’d had a little Twitter rant 😉 I wonder if one of the issues is that it (SN) has such an individual focus which sort of pathologises the individual and erases the interactional dimension involved (with family, professionals, and others)?

    We are sort of caught, as you’re both pointing out, between having to identify and mark out difference, to legitimate the right to some sort of support in learning. But whatever that support is called will probably end up having negative connotations. I’m not familiar with the SEN literature but wonder if ‘special ed needs’ was held to be a very positive introduction, whenever it came about? And certainly much better than whatever went before it.

    Maybe if we could find some way of not isolating and objectifying, but more recognising and acknowledging that learning (or being) is inherently a social, interactional process, these problematic terms with the negative connotations would disappear… but I have no idea how this could happen… Sorry.

  3. lizit says:

    You are absolutely right about SEN being proposed as a positive and equalising term when it was introduced by the Warnock Committee back in 1977/8 – and definitely much better than the previous terminology. The aim, very much like additional needs which came out of every child matters, was to suggest any child could have special needs at some point in their school career.

    I suspect things are going to get even more tricky with the introduction of ‘complex needs’ in the SEN review – potentially developing different tiers of difficulty/needs/resources.

    The other perspective, suggested in a paper by Katherine Runswick-Cole and Nick Hodge is to stop talking about needs and start talking of rights. Not sure if that really cuts the mustard either.

    Thanks Sara for starting the discussion.

  4. Judith says:

    It is indeed such a minefield, and I certainly don’t have any answers or even preferred terms. I was told by someone at the NAS that Asperger’s was a disability, but not necessarily a special educational need. And of course those terms then have ramifications in terms of what you might reasonably ask for, the terms you use when asking, and the documents you refer to…

    On a personal level, the term “special needs” doesn’t bother me, but maybe I am utopian (or literally interpreting the words – we do a lot of that at my house!). “Special” may indeed have negative connotations, but not inherently so. And similarly with the word “needs”: we all have needs and much of human interaction and indeed daily living involves trying to meet those needs. For me, the term “special needs” implies that the needs of that person may well be different, or additional, to those commonly assumed and, as such, merit careful thought and open communication about what those needs are, and what support that implies. With respect to my son, when communicating with relevant parties such as the school, the focus on “needs” helps me to articulate more clearly the sorts of things that might best enable him, and why. Sadly, the other parties don’t always seem to be that responsive, but that is another story!

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