Removing the stigma of special needs children

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The negative stigma involved with children with special needs has always been an issue that has been near and dear to me ever since I was in Junior High School.  I first met Rodney Smith when I was in eighth grade and noticed that his development was different from mine when I was in gym class.  This was one of the only classes that we were "mixed" with.  He played basketball, football and all of the other sports with us but this is when I noticed that there was something more to the issue.


Even though he was just as talented as the rest of the kids in our gym class it became apparent that his levels of processing information was different and this is when I noticed others that did not have his disability treated him differently and this is when I befriended him.  I made it a point to always try to sit with him during lunch at least once a week and talk to him and see how his classes were going.


From my interactions with Rodney, I had met his teacher Mrs. Connie Gooch and she had told me that he was born with Autism.  There are several different aspects to this disease, however, according to Bailey, Phillips and Rutter (1996) there are three main behavioral characteristics that define the syndrome of autism: social abnormalities, language abnormalities, and stereotyped repetitive patterns of behavior.  Once I learned that from Mrs. Gooch in layman's terms it seemed as if there were other classmates in support for helping the kids that were in the special needs classes.


It was as if I was kind of a primer to the pump that made others in my grade and in the junior high school aware that they were just like us kids, but that they had differing levels of being able to learn.  Here again I always made it a point to stop in and learn about others that were in Rodney's class and see how they were doing.  The only problem was that others that were in the school and my class were making fun of me for befriending Rodney and his class.  This was the negative stigma of a downward social comparison (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005 p 215) that I endured until my graduation from High School as I kept in constant contact with Rodney and his classmates.


Another thing that came about from this was my awareness of how other kids in my grade and school treated the ones in the special needs class.  Because of the change in the laws in 1975 that I was unaware of, it would take some time for these changes to be felt in the classrooms around the country as well as in Wichita, Kansas where I was raised.


Even though there have been several additions to the 1975 Education of the Handicapped Act, there have been several road blocks that have eventually been overcome.  For example, in 1997 President Clinton finally passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Turnbull & Cilley, 1999) that gave greater relief and support to families with children that have learning disabilities.  This is just another indicator of the stigma that is involved with children that have learning disabilities, and it doesn't need to be this way.


Just because someone is not the head of the class or the best looking in class is not a good reason for shunning individuals with disabilities.  Even though there are governmental programs that aid families that have children with disabilities, participation in events such as Special Olympics is still needed to help their development.




Bailey, A., Phillips, W., and Michael Rutter, . (2006) Autism: Towards an Integration of Clinical, Genetic, Neuropsychological, and Neurobiological Perspectives. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 37, 1 (pp. 89-126) Retrieved from


Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2005). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


Turnbull, R., & Celley, M. (1999). Explanations and implications of the 1997 Amendments to IDEA.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.


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I find it very brave of you to have taken the step of befriending someone that others are afraid to. Stigmas and social norms can be pervasive and unfortunate. There are likely more people who, like you, but without the stigma, would have been friends with disabled students. In my high school those with learning disabilities, and all other disabilities, were very much separated from the rest of us. I was never in contact with them unless I was volunteering. This separation created even more of a stigma that disabled students are “less” than others at my school. I hope that the current anti-bullying campaigns (such as Lady Gaga’s (AFP, 2011)) will reduce some of the beliefs that people who are different should be treated differently.

AFP. (2011). Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign. The Express Tribune. Retrieved from

Your story resonated with me. My cousin is a special needs adult. As a child, she was just like any other kid. No one would recognize anything different about her. Unfortunately as she progressed through a few years in school, her deficits in class became apparent. As soon as she was labeled “special needs,” her former friends and classmates treated her differently. She was moved to a class specifically designed for special needs children, but she still ate lunch and rode the school bus home with everyone else. Kids in her former class began to bully her. She was devastated. As she got older, she felt more and more isolated and that something was “wrong” with her.
Thankfully, there are programs out there for those with special needs that provide a safe environment, free from bullying and judgment, and encourage socialization. An example of one in my neighborhood is called Fairhaven. My sister works as a habilitation coordinator there and there are many different programs at this facility that cater to those with developmental disabilities throughout every stage in their life.
Fairhaven. (n.d.). Fairhaven. Retrieved December 9, 2011, from

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