For Care Professionals

The Pros and Cons of labeling a child with special needs

The question of labels is one that a lot of us face as we live in a label-happy society. If your child is the slightest bit different from others, some “expert” is quick to attach a label. Some of which could be sensory processing disorder (SPD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), learning differences or disabilities (LD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or so many more.

It can also be frustrating to know something is wrong, but not have a name for it. A lot of parents might think, ” If I’d been ‘labeled’ or diagnosed as a kid I could’ve received services to help manage my ADHD and maybe things would’ve been better.” Indeed, early diagnosis can lead to early intervention and access to special education programs and services, yet it can also mean a permanent label that could impede progress and the healthy development of a child’s identity.  Labeling a child with special needs can be a difficult decision to make, especially for parents. It can be helpful to know what the pros and cons of labeling are so that you can make an informed decision in your situation.

A label can provide a clear explanation.
A label can help you understand your child better. A label can provide a clear explanation of a child’s differences, which can be helpful for parents who have never seen or heard of the disability before. It also helps parents find resources and support to help their kids succeed. For example, if you know that your child has dyslexia and attends a school where there are no accommodations for dyslexia, it may be easier for you as a parent to advocate for different teaching methods or extra time on tests in order to meet your child’s needs.

The term “special needs” is often used when talking about children who have developmental delays or other physical challenges that affect their ability to learn (but not necessarily just because they have these conditions). These children will be supported differently than those with physical limitations alone because they tend not to develop at the same pace as other kids their age do—they might need more assistance with tasks such as walking around without tripping over things every five seconds!

A label can be isolating.
A child with a label may not have the same experience as their peers, which can make them feel different, alone and unable to relate to others. A label can also be a barrier to social interaction. People may assume your child has certain characteristics based on their diagnosis, and this may lead to judgmental responses that are not helpful or supportive of your child’s needs (e.g., “Your son is autistic so he’ll never be able to live independently”). Additionally, people will sometimes expect things from children with special needs that they don’t require from neurotypical kids—such as asking a blind person why they’re walking so slowly when someone else would just walk faster in order for everyone else around them not feel rushed or hurried along by their slower pace.

A label can lead to a stigma.
When you label a child with special needs, it can lead to stigma. Stigma is a negative attitude toward a person with a disability that can manifest itself in discriminatory behavior and exclusion from society.  When people hear the words “special needs,” they tend to think of children who have physical or mental disabilities. The word ‘special’ has been used in a way that suggests the child is different in some way and therefore not as good as other kids. This can lead to discrimination and lack of access to services, peer events, social groups or education for both children and their families as well as low self esteem in the child.

A label can lead to expectations.
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of someone with Down syndrome is that they have mental retardation, but that’s not always the case. Some people with Down syndrome have IQs higher than average, and others even have genius-level intelligence (there are no official definitions for these terms). It’s important to remember that a person’s ability is not defined by their diagnosis.

A child with a disability will often be labeled as “slow” or “incapable,” even though they might be able to learn at the same pace as other students or even excel in certain areas. For example, I’m familiar with one little boy who was thought to be slow because he wasn’t talking yet while all his peers were already speaking fluently; however, once he was given an assessment it was determined that he had a speech delay and wasn’t actually cognitively delayed at all!

Some parents may expect their child will never do well in school because of their disability, but this isn’t necessarily true! In fact, many kids who have special needs also have high academic achievement levels when given proper support from teachers, educators, therapists etc., so don’t write off your child too soon just because there may be some hurdles along the way (which there often are).

A label might not be accurate for life.
As you can see, a label can be many things. It may not be accurate for life, which is why it’s important to continue evaluating and adjusting your child’s needs as they grow. A label is simply a starting point and sometimes a way to get help or support.

In order to plan treatment, it’s important that children receive an accurate diagnosis first. Labels can help these evaluations and lead to more effective treatments later on. While labels won’t necessarily hurt your child, they have the potential to be harmful if they’re assigned incorrectly or used incorrectly by others around them (i.e. friends at school).

A label can open an opportunity
While a diagnosis can feel like a burden to some, it also opens doors for people with special needs. When you label your child as having autism or ADHD, for example, you’re opening up opportunities for him or her to receive support and understanding from the community. Society is often more accepting of those who have a label because there is an awareness that this person has experienced something different from most other people around them. Parents who know their children have autism or ADHD may talk openly about their experiences with other parents who are facing similar challenges. In fact, these kinds of conversations are usually welcome because they allow parents to connect with one another and make them feel less alone in facing these challenges together.

A label can give access to services.
You may be surprised to learn that a label can actually be beneficial. In certain situations, a diagnosis will grant you access to the help and services you need. For example:

  • If your child has a disability that qualifies for special education services or the individualized education program (IEP), receiving this assistance will mean he or she receives instruction in an academic area (such as math) in addition to learning about his or her disability. They will tailor your child’s educational plan around their diagnosis. Additionally, if he or she has been diagnosed with ADHD, he or she might be eligible for medication treatment under Medicaid’s Early and Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment program.
  • If your child is considered “gifted,” he or she may qualify for programs such as accelerated learning programs at school or Advanced Placement courses.
  • Being labeled as autistic could put you on the path toward receiving additional support from your local community center if they offer autism-specific services such as social skills groups and occupational therapy sessions
  • There is also funding for various services, like In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) or the Self Determination Program which allows parents control in developing their child’s service plans and selecting service providers to better meet their needs.


In order to ensure that the positives outweigh the negatives when labeling a child as “special needs” focus on the purpose, which is to determine treatment and resources. It is necessary that parents get involved and become educated about the process. For example, find a list of celebrities, sports stars, or authors that also share your child’s diagnosis. Children feel less alone when they can relate to someone they look up to and see their diagnosis is not a limitation to what they can achieve.

Their chromosomal patterns, genetic makeup, and neuro-wiring might be an important part of who they are, but we don’t have to let a label define our children. We never should. If we allow the labeling system to box in children and prevent them from reaching their full potential, we’re headed in the wrong direction. Instead, let’s set the bar high and let our children thrive regardless of any label!

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