Is The Term “Special Needs” Offensive? What To Say Instead.

I have had to really think about my answer to this question – Is it OK to use the term special needs?

People can be really mean sometimes.

People can be really kind sometimes.

This pretty much sums up what I have learned about the internet as a blogger.

I delete inappropriate comments without responding. I try to help anyone who seems like they may need it and I hope I communicate how grateful I am for the massive support and encouragement I feel from you, my gracious readers.

But every once in a while, there’s a comment that I just can’t shake. Like the time someone said I was prostituting my sons. Or the time someone said I should’ve done the world a favor and not had children. These types of comments require time to calm down, have some perspective. (It’s a part of blogging. Period. I get it.)

Is The Term "Special Needs" Offensive? What To Say Instead.

Recently, I came across a comment that was not overtly mean. It did not threaten my children or call me a bad mom. But it has been hard for me to let go.

The comment?

“You say special needs way too much. You are labeling your poor children when you do that and it’s not fair. You should say differently-abled or something. “

Is It OK To Use The Term “Special Needs”?

I understand the intent (although, for the record, I think judgement is never a good way to inspire change) and it got me thinking.

Is it OK to use the term “Special Needs” when referring to my children (or any child for that matter)?

The definition of “special needs” is, according to Google Dictionary –

Particular educational requirements resulting from learning difficulties, physical disability, or emotional and behavioral difficulties.

Special needs is a term that originated in the educational system to denote children that literally had “special” or unique education requirements.

I could argue that all children, when we look at them as individuals, have special or unique educational requirements and that part of motherhood is figuring them out – but I won’t.

The truth is, I just don’t have the energy to worry to about all of this.

Whether or not the needs are special, my children have needs that require a lot of me. 

What Disability Advocates Prefer

Although I have not understood why the term is offensive, I now see that it is for many. 

Most experts and advocates vehemently oppose the term “special needs,” and believe we need to eliminate it from our vernacular. Furthermore, they say avoiding the term “disabled” only leads to stigmatization. 

For some, the term “special needs” feels offensive. 

It can also be counterproductive. 

Researchers from a 2016 study found people who are referred to as having “special needs” are seen more negatively than those referred to as having a disability.

USA Today

Here is what I wrote just four years ago about this very topic.

My desire is to encourage and support moms, no matter what the needs of their children, and communicate that we are not alone in this. I try to do this with every single post. I also want to make you laugh if I can, to make up for the seriousness of it all.

That’s it.

In order to achieve this, I have to find language that makes sense and can be easily understood by all of us.

Special Needs is a catch-all that I use to define the differences in my boys’ bodies and in our lives.

I do not see it as derogatory, although I know it can be and is used in derogatory ways.

The words themselves are never the problem. It’s the heart and intent behind them.

For example, Mother Teresa, referred to the developmentally disabled and mentally ill as “mental.”

No matter what she called them, she served and loved a typically shunned group of people without bias. The heart was pure, even if the words might offend.

We Need To Change Our Language

Words matter. I would never want to communicate that I think otherwise. Often, I receive emails from adults on the spectrum that are concerned about language used or references made to mothering a child with autism. As a matter of practice, I typically delete anything that could potentially be offensive.


Because I am not on the spectrum. I cannot possibly tell an autistic adult what they should and should not be comfortable with – in fact, I hope they tell me so that I can better understand.

Because of this, I no longer feel the same way about the term “special needs”. I want to acknowledge what so many are saying and respect the wishes and needs of a community that I love and desperately want to be an advocate for. 

“Special Needs” In My Home

My children are both comfortable with “special needs” and don’t connect it to any judgement.

My youngest has even used it to describe the pets he wants to adopt.

“I want to help all the animals that have special needs and need me to give them special care.”

I love this.

For my sweet boy, special needs immediately denotes care, not an assessment of ability.

Perhaps it should for us all.

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  1. I love this. We struggled with terminology when my son was diagnosed with autism. He start to walk around saying “baby broke” which meant he saw himself as broken. Special needs was a good term for us because I was able to explain that I too have special needs for being dyslexic and his fathers has special needs because he is blind without his glasses. Special needs helped my son not feel alone or broken, just unique. I really haven’t found a term that works better for us.

    1. I feel the same way, Lara. Thank you!

  2. Someone saying “you should say differently abled” smacks of PC. I absolutely say special needs–it’s a nice umbrella term that I can expound on if I feel like it, or not if I don’t.

  3. This is awesome! Please, everyone, stop focusing on the exact words and pay more attention to the feelings behind the words. We are too critical and too quick to be offended. Not everything someone says is meant as a judgement. We, as parents, are doing the best we can. We ALL fall short!

  4. “You should not say special needs” needs to unfollow your blog.

    Thank you for writing, Shawna!
    I appreciate you!

    1. Thank you for the encouragement, Tina!

  5. Ladonna becktold says:

    Love how you handled this! Our kids know they have needs outside the typical. Pretending they dont would be disingenuous and only create more pain.

  6. Thank you for this. Yes language matters, especially to those who are spoken about and yes all children or indeed people are special in their own way but a child with special or additional needs has just that, needs that require more care, more effort and more energy from the care givers. It’s not just differently abled as then one could argue that everybody requires this extra care, time, most of all energy and they don’t. Big happy with the language, read and forget or don’t bother reading but sometimes terminology is a comfort, the we are in this together and I know how hard it is from one parent with a disabled or different child to another. I appreciate it and find encouragement in your posts so please don’t blanket with PC but keep going. Thank you x

  7. Dee Courtwright says:

    Number one, they must live in Mayberry. I have relatives like that. Not only are you not allowed to say certain things, they don’t even want you to even SPEAK about your child. They want roses placed around everything. Their opinion is invalid. Special needs means our kids have special medical and healthcare needs. That is all. Even as an adult with Autism myself, I wouldn’t mind if my Mom said that about myself. Then the receiver of the phrase must adjust their approach immediately.?

  8. I prefer not to use it with my son or other children. I often use specialbilities, but I don’t correct others for saying “special needs” if it is used in the proper context. I also don’t say ” my Autistic son” instead “my son who has Autism” for reasons that are too long to go into. If your children are cared for and respected for abilities and challenges, then that is what is important.

  9. Karen Pierce says:

    I use the term special needs. Because my grandson is special (in the good way) and he has needs that are different than what some other kids do. A rose is a rose…as long as it’s not the “r word’, I’m good with it!!

  10. Interesting! I’d never seen anything negative about the term “special needs” — still don’t. I love what your son said. And it’s clear from your writing that your kids are special — and that their needs aren’t typical. No problem with calling something what it IS! (Those who have a problem with it — that says so much more about them than about you. So many wounded people dumping their stuff on others, esp. on the internet.)

    You just keep on, Shawna! As you know, I have tons of respect for you and always learn something reading you. Thanks!

  11. Hello Shawna,

    First of all, I agree wholeheartedly with your response, and with the other comments supporting that. I too, look for ways to ‘frame’ our specific experiences in life so that we simultaneously acknowledge the difference and promote the normalization of the differences.

    I would like to say though, that on my personal journey as the mom of a child who experiences Autism (as well as other diagnosis) and as a woman in my own right who has navigated domestic violence and the death of a young child, that words and perspectives and ‘framing’ have become very important to me. I have found that as I process (ie grieve) these hardships, I confront deep underlying assumptions that I have had but didn’t realize. Big, hard questions like, ‘good things happen to those who are/do good, and bad things (or really really bad things) happen to those who are/do bad.’ and ‘why would God let these things happen?’ and ‘why would God create an innocent child with such debilitating and painful health problems?’ and on and on… The more flexible I am about seeing things from a different angle or understanding, the easier it is on my torn and trampled heart.

    I do believe that this topic which can be layered over most any of our struggles and can be very cathartic. While the original comment here had an edge (probably without intent) of judgment and or PC thinking, I have to respectfully suggest that the comment did you (and all of us) good. Stopping and re-evaluating how we see ourselves, and others is incredibly important in keeping flexible. And for me at least, flexibility has been paramount in riding this roller coaster of a life.

    Blessings on you, your family, and those you touch through this blog.

  12. In my very humble opinion, it is completely fine to use the term “special needs”. It doesn’t offend or upset me at all. It is calling it exactly what it is: special needs. There are plenty of things in life to get upset about, this just isn’t one of them for me.

  13. Teresa Engle says:

    Very good response, I agree with you 100%!! I use “special needs” when I refer to my son, its a general term that most people understand. I think you do very well with your blog and try to encourage and help others. God Bless you for all you do, as a mom, and as a blogger. I enjoy reading them ?

  14. Jacqui G. says:

    I am reposting this because I made a mistake in the final sentence, and it sort of blows off everything else I said. Could see no way of editing my comment after it was posted. Please cancel this one.



  15. Jacqui G. says:

    My 6-year old granddaughter has Cystic Fibrosis. Her body doesn’t produce digestive enzymes, so she must take them in capsule form Is it okay to use the term “Special needs child?” I say no. Here’s why.

    My 6-year old granddaughter has Cystic Fibrosis. Her body doesn’t produce digestive enzymes, so she must take them in capsule form before every meal and snack. Gaining weight is a problem; at age 6 she weighs 36 pounds. Her lungs fill with sticky mucus, so she requires two 40-minute therapy sessions a day to clear them. A common head cold could easily progress into a serious chest infection.

    When she was a baby and a toddler, she was often hospitalized with pneumonia, and her parents restricted her exposure to the outside world. As she grew , they gradually introduced her to preschool, playdates, swim lessons, and so on. She now attends kindergarten at a small independent school, where the staff and parents are aware of her needs. She’s doing remarkably well. Despite her petite size she is feisty and full of energy, and keeps up with her older siblings. I have trouble keeping up with her!

    Her mother, however, is struggling to find a balance between encouragement and overprotection. Recently, during a discussion about this, my daughter blurted out, “You don’t understand, Ma! She is a SPECIAL NEEDS CHILD!” and I responded, “No, dear. she is a CHILD with some SPECIAL NEEDS. There is a huge difference.”

    My granddaughter is courageous and funny and smart and willing to take risks. As she grows up she will face restrictions and disappointments; she will be hurt by ignorant people; she will bear the weight of responsibilities and decisions. We can’t make her “special needs” go away, but we can make sure she is equipped for the journey with confidence, self-reliance, and a sense of humour.

    But we can’t do that while we are simultaneously labelling her a SPECIAL NEEDS CHILD in our own minds.

  16. Susan Malak says:

    My daughter several months back told me about a lady she meant was saying it’s better to use the term disability than special needs. Reason being, some kind of poll said that people preferred disabled because it had more of a connection as family i.e. H.O.G., BLM, LGBT,. I don’t know who took that poll but my first guess was people with a physical disability…..perhaps born with and or from war. Well I decided to ask my 24 yr.old son which did he prefer, special needs or disability. BTW, this was very hard to ask cause I had to explain things he doesn’t care to talk about…he just prefers to be called by his name which I think is great….but there is a reality factor that we both touch base on …that’s another reply. Anyway, bet your guessing what he chose for himself…….special needs….then I said ok and we moved on into the future of that day.
    Blessings all!

  17. Amen! As a mom to three kids with varying special needs, I so much appreciate when you speak up and out about the reality of what the days, weeks, months, and years look like. Thank you for writing this post and for sharing the other posts that you write. Parenting is hard, it is really hard. Parenting those with challenges – be they physical, mental, emotional, and/or behavioral is really, really hard. I love my role as a parent. Your posts are so reassuring, encouraging, and help me keep perspective and cheer me on to be a better mom than I was the day before.

  18. As long as it is not said in a nasty way I don’t mind how people talk about me or my aspergers.
    and I thought you might like to know nothing in the way you speak of autism bugs me.


  19. Thank you, Charisa! I really appreciate your kind words and you sharing your experience (and if I ever do bug you, please let me know…:-) )

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