By now, you might know who I am. If not, well, quick-fire intro: I’m Errol. I’m 23, I’m autistic and I’m a blogger and editor.
One thing I am not, however, is special.
Autistic people – neurodivergent people as a whole – are not “special”.
I can hear the uproar coming from a mile away.
“What do you mean, autistic people aren’t special?”
“My child is definitely a special child, they can do [insert wild and amazing thing here]
“autistic people are always special in their own way!”
Nah. I’m not saying that you as an individual are not “special” in one way or another, I’m saying that being neurodiverse isn’t special – because that’s not what special means in this regard.
I refer particularly to being autistic as that’s my own personal experience. With dyslexic family members and having disabilities of my own I’ve many experiences of being called “special” as well as seeing those around me considered as such.
“Special” is just a polite way to put autistic people in the “other” category, to differentiate us from the “normal”, neurotypical people worth your time, effort and support.
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Let’s start from the beginning, with the three definitions of “special” within the Oxford English Dictionary, because they’ll inevitably be brought up:
- Better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual.
- Belonging specifically to a particular person or place.
- Used to denote education for children with particular needs, especially those with learning difficulties.
So, there’s a clear and separate definition for needs. This definition of special is separate from “better, greater”. This also is separate from “belonging specifically” to an individual. “special” is now an educational term when it comes to disabilities. Autism included.
Whether you consider being autistic to be a disability or not, all conditions are under the same bracket when we consider the idea of “special” – it’s just used more when you’re autistic.
Let’s get onto this by talking about special interests. Whether you like trains, dinosaurs, videogames, whether your obsessions are completely focused around being autistic in itself, if it’s more than “normal” levels of interest – it’s a “special” interest.
Our very interests become a medical phenomenon. Autistic people aren’t allowed to like anything “too much” for fear of it being labelled a special interest. Autistic people aren’t allowed to like anything “quirky” without it being labelled a special interest. Thing is, most “special interests” are quite normal interests. Would you immediately label someone’s obsession with the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an autistic special interest? I doubt it. Would you do so for your autistic friend who conveniently really likes Marvel? Maybe you would.
It reinforces the medicalisation of being autistic. If you’ve got a medical reason you’re interested in things, a medical reason you struggle with social communication difficulties, a medical reason you don’t like the sound of certain things or the texture of certain clothing, they can “understand” your “condition”. They don’t, of course – they’re able to slot you into a box and that’s good enough for them. It allows them to avoid addressing autistic people as people.
It reinforces the idea that we have “special powers” – the next thing I’m going to tackle. The idea that anyone with any kind of disability or neurological difference has some kind of superpower that “balances out” their impairment or difficulty.
Where do I begin?
Firstly, this undermines the entire disability movement and neurodiversity movement. This promotes the idea that without a balancing skill, people with any form of impairments aren’t “good enough”.
Secondly, it forces autistic people to over-exaggerate their skills or rely on their skills to promote their identity. I can joke that my superpower is that I can write 3000 words in an hour – and have done so many times – but that’s not a superpower. It doesn’t “balance out” things. I’m good enough without those skills.
Thirdly, it makes everything we do link back to being autistic. It’s as if society refuses to allow us to have any other identity other than autistic. Those of us who are LGBTQ+ can’t have an interest in LGBTQ+ rights without it being a special interest, those of us who are brilliant scientists, academics or sportspeople have that as a “superpower” that balances out their impairments.
This leads me onto the idea that we’re “special in our own way”. Frankly, this is rubbish. Usually, this is said by non-autistic people, often parental figures, about their children. This puts us on a pedestal that we can’t live up to. This is infantilising, making us out to be this “perfect child”, oftentimes pushing us away from our own independence in the long term. It also forces us to be the kind of special people want to see, to constantly strive towards being better and better. It doesn’t allow us to just be us. We have to be “special” us.
And it also doesn’t allow for recognition of poor behaviour. Too many times have I seen parents excuse the behaviour of their neurodivergent children by indicating that they’re just “special”, it’s not meant in a negative or harmful way, rather than just… telling their child off like any other parent would – or should. I’m sorry, but if you’re a dick, and you’re let off because you’re “special”? You’re still a dick. No speciality about it.
Now, let’s round this off. I’m going to talk about education.
Special. Educational. Needs. SEN is one hell of a topic for me to try to cover in a few hundred words, but we’ll go for it.
I’m going to list a few terms that go hand-in-hand. “Special needs”, “special considerations”, “reasonable adjustments”, “exceptional circumstances”. The words “special”, “reasonable” and “exceptional” can be used almost interchangeably.
There’s the problem: it pins certain needs, adjustments and circumstances as “not reasonable”. It invalidates certain requirements for children with these needs. These needs, which should be labelled as “essential”, are forced into a bracket where they can be argued against. These needs stop being requirements for development and instead become points for groups to argue against. It’s the same as in later-life assessments – they want to catch you out, consider your access needs unreasonable, unnecessary. The idea of “special” allows them to consider them out of their reach as an education institution.
These needs aren’t “special” – they’re necessary, mandatory, essential. They’re not a secondary “bonus” requirement. They’re not special because special indicates that these needs are always “good”, that these requirements and the support provided are always positive. I can confirm they’re not always so. They can be humiliating and difficult to get through. Labelling them as “special” undermines the struggles that we face, labelling them as “reasonable” and “unreasonable” invalidates the necessity of these requirements.
I am autistic. I am disabled.
I’m not special. We’re not special.
We’re very much real. Our experiences are very much real. The support we need is very much real.
Stop invalidating us, stop calling us “special” and start putting our voices first.