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The Importance of Being “Labeled” When It Comes to Special Needs

“Why is everyone so determined to put labels on kids these days? Why can’t parents and teachers just help kids learn how integrate into society without telling them they’re ‘different’?”

I think almost every person who deals with special needs on a daily basis has heard this at some point or another. Even those who don’t deal with special needs have probably heard someone muttering about this under their breath. It’s a huge, umbrella idea that befalls a large percentage of our society.

My question is: Why are people so determined to hide a child’s “differences?”

The answer to this is usually that people are afraid to officially label their child as “different” because they don’t want the stigma that goes along with it. They don’t want their child in special classes, they don’t want other kids to pick on theirs, and they don’t want their child taking negative stigmas into adulthood. They want their kid to have the chance to be “normal.”

In a round-about way, I think a lot of people believe, “Once labeled, always labeled.”

Which, in my opinion, begs the question … Who cares?

Since when is it a bad thing to more deeply understand yourself or your child? Since when is it a bad thing to be honest with the people around you? Since when is it a bad thing to be treated and taught in the specific ways you need?

For me, the answer is never. Those have never been bad things. I wish every child on Earth could be treated in a way that brings out the best in them. I wish every child was taught in the way they most efficiently responded to.

Albert Einstein had learning disabilities as a child, which caused his teachers to disregard him. He found himself in trouble a lot and was frequently told how unintelligent he was. In reality, his brain just worked differently than his peers.

That’s what caused him to say the famous quote, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life thinking it’s stupid.”

Why do we judge children by their ability to fit into a box, and then convince them they’re broken when they don’t?

It doesn’t matter if a child carries the stigma of having a “special need” into adulthood. In fact, not much of anything in regards to social status really matters once people leave high school. Am I the only one that has noticed how adulthood is whatever you make it to be? I highly doubt I am.

No one can ruin your child’s adulthood if they’ve been given the appropriate amount of encouragement and confidence.

I like to think that we, as a society, have progressed beyond the days of discrimination. I like to think we’re learning more and understanding more about the people around us. I like to think we don’t consider someone lesser because their brain works differently than ours.

And I like to think that we genuinely understand that it is a matter of different function, rather than a matter of correct function versus incorrect function.

When a child is diagnosed with a learning disability (or anything that falls under the category of “special needs”), they’re given the opportunity to understand why they’ve been struggling. They get to know how their brain works, and what they need to do differently to reach the same goals as other children. Their families get to understand them, instead of wondering why they act so strangely.

And, for many children who are diagnosed, they’re finally given the chance to move from “bad kid who won’t” to “good kid who can’t.”

Without labels and diagnoses, children with special needs can’t get into the programs they need at school or home or wherever else. My nephew, for example, wouldn’t be able to participate in therapy that he really needs and enjoys if a doctor/therapist hadn’t officially stated what is going on in his brain.

And at therapy, Felix feels a sense of inclusion with kids that are like him. He feels like he’s growing and achieving. He feels like people are proud of him. Why would anyone want to deprive him of those opportunities?

If, instead of seeking a diagnosis, Felix’s mom had said, “I know there’s something different about him, but I don’t want him to be labeled forever so I won’t allow him to be diagnosed…” then Felix wouldn’t have improved as much as he has over the past year. He wouldn’t be getting the help he needs at school. He’d probably spend most of his time being disciplined because the teachers would think he was choosing to disobey, instead of understanding that sometimes he can’t obey.

I do have a friend who has ADHD, though, who had parents who wouldn’t acknowledge her diagnosis, and she loved it. They made her fit into society and helped her release energy in other ways, and she grew up to be an intelligent, functional person. But she’s really, really fortunate.

She’s lucky she had parents who could devote the time to taking her to four different sports, and could still help her with her homework for several hours each night. She’s lucky she had teachers who were patient with her and found her “quirks” charming. She’s really, really lucky.

A lot of kids with ADHD (or other disorders) don’t end up in such fortunate circumstances when they go without a diagnosis.

My sister, for example, (the mother of Felix) is pretty sure that her son inherited most of his disorders from her. She remembers having too much energy as a kid, and not being able to obey when she wanted to, and being overloaded from noises and lights, and being reprimanded for things she couldn’t even remember doing.

She labeled herself as a “bad kid” at a very early age because society had told her that’s what she was.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t hold her pencil correctly, it was that she wouldn’t. It wasn’t that she couldn’t stop her impulses, it was that she wouldn’t. It wasn’t that she couldn’t fit into the box everyone made for her, it was that she wouldn’t.

She felt at war with herself almost every second of the day. By the time she was a teenager, she decided to allow her impulsiveness and hyperactivity to take over her mind because she knew she’d get in trouble either way. Why bother expending the energy to fight it?

As her sister, that’s painful for me. I don’t understand why adults would be more willing to label her as “bad” than they would to label her as “different.” And if people did know she was different, why wouldn’t they try to find out the cause of it? With a diagnosis, she could’ve been given help and guidance to get through adolescence in a more appropriate way.

She wouldn’t have had to struggle on her own.

Of course, it’s easy to say that when looking back. At the time, people didn’t diagnose kids as freely as they do now, especially not in our small town. No one in our family even realized there could’ve been a “why” to her “how’s.” Not even me, and I was with her constantly.


As an adult, my sister has worked through a lot of the stuff going on in her brain. She’s gradually learning how to deal with having different thought processes than most people, how to integrate into society, and how to apply some of her son’s therapy to herself. She’s becoming healthier.

But imagine how different her life would’ve been if she had know sooner?

Do you have a child who has a special need or learning disability? Have they been diagnosed, yet? If so, did you embrace that diagnosis and seek treatment? Or are you still coming to terms with the ramifications of being labeled?

There are no right answers. There’s only you trying to do what’s best for you child.

Whatever you’re going through, someone in this world has already been in your shoes. Most likely, someone in this community. We want you to feel free to do what you think is best for your child, and to know that this community will support you.

If you need encouragement, we’re here to offer it to you!

And if you need something completely different, we’ll try to help with that, too. We love to hear stories from all sides of the conversation, even if the opinions reflect different ones than our own.

However, do please be kind with your words. Consider that these are real people with real lives. The special needs community is a strong one, and we won’t allow our commentators to tear it down.

Can’t wait to hear from you, friends! I hope this was encouraging.

The Importance of Being “Labeled” When It Comes to Special Needs

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2016). The Importance of Being “Labeled” When It Comes to Special Needs. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Jan 2016
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