From the preface to The Politics of Autism.
A major theme of this book is that just about everything concerning autism is subject to argument. There is not even any consensus on what one should call people who have autism and other disabilities. “In the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terms such as `Autistic,’ `Autistic person,’ or `Autistic individual’ because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity,” writes blogger Lydia Brown.[i] Other writers prefer “people-first” language (e.g., “persons with autism”) since it puts the persons ahead of the disability and describes what they have, not who they are.[ii] For the sake of stylistic variety, this book uses both kinds of language, even though this approach will satisfy neither side. I can only say that I mean no offense.
In our daily lives, we may encounter phrases like "I am disabled" or "My child has special needs." And to someone who is not part of the community, this wording may seem synonymous. But it's not.
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.
"I am disabled by society due to my impairment," says Lisette Torres-Gerald, board secretary for the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities. "My needs are not 'special;' they are the same, human needs that everyone else has, and I should be able to fully participate in society just as much as the next person."
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.
The National Center on Disability and Journalism recommends never using it: "Our advice: avoid the term 'special needs.' Disabled is acceptable in most contexts, but we advise asking the person to whom you’re referring what they prefer."
Sonja Sharp, a metro reporter with the Los Angeles Times, prefers identity-first language: "disabled" over "person with disabilities." "It's cleaner, it's simpler, and it's more reflective of my reality," Sharp says. "The law defines me as disabled