Teacher Professor

August 25, 2010

Labels- Love ’em and Loathe ’em

Filed under: Autism,Exceptionality issues,Gifted,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 5:28 pm

(in response to Jess’ post about the gifted and talented label- I’m engaging in respectful dialogue)

`I wish you wouldn’t squeeze so.’ said the Dormouse, who was
sitting next to her. `I can hardly breathe.’

`I can’t help it,’ said Alice very meekly: `I’m growing.’

`You’ve no right to grow here,’ said the Dormouse.

`Don’t talk nonsense,’ said Alice more boldly: `you know
you’re growing too.’

`Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,’ said the Dormouse:
`not in that ridiculous fashion.’

– Lewis Carroll- Alice in Wonderland

Every child is special.  Every child has something to contribute and every child, no matter how far the difference from “typical”, has a uniqueness about them and a value and something that they contribute to other’s lives.  Every child.


But differences exist.  How we, as individuals, as a classroom, as a community, define and respond to those differences tells us much about what we value, what we worry about and what we fear.

There is a human, biological need to find patterns, to categorize, to seek commonalities.  It is related to how we learn; it is related to our very survival.  The ancient man who first saw a new animal, had to ask “Is this going to eat me, or am I going to eat it?”.  And we use language to divide, to understand, to classify.  The need to organize is so biologically innate, the lack of it creates its own sets of fears.  People who do not find order, do not find connections, do not find patterns live in fear.  “We”- those of us who do find order and commonalities, sometimes label this inability “autism”.  I know, I know- there is a lot more to the label than that, but this is a hallmark of it…

As a result of our need to classify, there is also a need to define “typical”, “normal”, “routine”.  Was today a normal day?  Does my body feel the way it does normally?  Is my child acting normally?  Herein lies the rub-“normal” is a comparative word- and the challenge is “Compared to WHAT?”  Compared to other children?  Compared to their own individual pattern?  Both sets of comparison implies value, but they can give you very different information.

We can look at groups of people and classify them a bunch of different ways.  We can classify by race, by height, by age, by how fast they learn to read, by hair color, by religion, by what genre of movies they like… there are a lot of different ways to find commonalities and differences.  On Sundays (Saturdays for some folks), people are sorted by religion.  Schools tend to classify by age.

When we educate children in groups, a “norm” is found.  Piaget found that at certain ages, children thought in particular ways.  We have 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. as a result of his work.  Maria Montessori advocated teaching children in ages ranges rather than grades (ages 6-9, 9-12) because of the range of typical development.  And so we have graded schools and we have Montessori schools and we have all of those expectations about what a First Grader does, a Fifth grader, etc.  Expectations about learning rates, social abilities, language abilities… aspects that directly affect a child’s behavior in a classroom setting are made and we teach to those expectations.

There probably is no such thing as a perfectly “typical” child- a child who is of average height, averge intelligence, average achievement, average peer relationships and average language ability from an average family in an average community.   But we have an educational system that is based around all of these things being “normal”- with some “allowable” differences.  When we look at children’s age-related development in schools, we tend to look at language, peer relationships, emotional development, intellectual, and physical aspects. Kids who are introverted, or really, really good at doing hair, or afraid of dogs are just not dealt with in educational contexts- there are no labels for them because there is no need for educational services for them.

Only some kids don’t fit those age expectations.  Perhaps- oh let’s say:

  • 1 in 110 children don’t act in “typical” way of other children their own age- they have more limited language, sensory and social skills.  We find some examples of kids who don’t act like most of the other children their age, but an awful lot like each other, and we call that thing that they have in common “autism”.
  • Or we look at other children, say 1 in 12 who can talk just like their age peers, who can relate to their friends just like other kids their age, but who aren’t reading or doing math as well as their age peers- in fact, quite differently than their age peers, and we call that thing that they have in common “a learning disability”.
  • Or we see that 1 in 8 kids are a lot more active, have a much shorter attention span, but everything else is typical, and we say that thing that they have in common is “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder”.
  • And we see that about 1 in 20 kids learn much faster than other children their age, have higher vocabularies and are more sensitive, and we call that thing that they have in common “giftedness”.

The problem is that people confuse the label with the person- the term is there to inform educators that this group of children NEEDS something different, not to “reward” or “punish” the child or imply any value about the child.  The child is acting in a non-age-typical way and needs to be taught using non-age-typical ways.  As long as we group children in schools by age, we will have labels.  Labels help us provide education that is better suited to that child- and others like her.  If we grouped by extroverted/introverted or gender or reading interest, we would have different labels because dichotomous categories, while easy, have outliers.

The biggest challenge is that not everyone fits the categories as cleanly as the original examples.  There are some children who ARE (blue), and some who are NOT  (red) in particular categories, but there’s an awful lot of kids in between (purple?).  So, lines have to be drawn.  And lines are drawn sometimes arbitraily, because all of these labels have to do with comparisons.  Categories are messy, categories are not always fair, but categories are how we function.  ALL categories of exceptionality- disability and giftedness- are societally defined because when you define a “norm”, you immediately define a “not norm”.  The causes of the “outside the norm” are found in biology, in environment, in personal choices.  Whatever the causation, the reason there is a category defined is because when kids are “outside the norm” of a typical classroom, you have to do something different- you have to educate differently.

Gifted Label

ALL parents want their child to grow.  ALL teachers are in the business of helping children grow.  A parent whose child is 3 grade levels below, or the parent whose child is 3 grade levels ahead, or the parent of the “typical” child all have the same goal- of having an education that will allow their child to be the very best that they can be.  Of having activities that challenge, but do not frustrate.  Of enjoying school without being bored or belittled.  Of learning something new and valuable every day.  Of having a classroom where differences are honored and celebrated as part of the range of human experiences- but are acknowledged.  Because not to acknowledge differences is to give in to the crushing sameness of the “norm”. A “Community” acknowledges and learns from each other’s differences; a “commune” stamps out differences and individuality.  If you don’t label a difference, you don’t have to educate to it.

Honoring and recognizing and educating to differences requires time and commitment and money.  Parents of gifted children have long been ignored in this process.  In the federal budget for 2009, 13 billion dollars went to special education; $7,000 went to gifted education.  I am NOT advocating taking away from special education- I am just trying to point out that there is a discrepancy between services to approximately the same number of children.  It is hard to give to those who “already have so much”.

Only, they don’t always have that much.  MY children, because of my educational background, because of my knowledge, because of my (rocky, but still better than some) financial resources will attend summer camps.  I will take them to Children’s Museums. I buy them math and language arts curriculum.  Friends of mine are taking their children with them to launch rockets in England.  Other people I know are taking their children biking through the lavender fields in France.  We can supplement; we can fill in the holes; we can provide an education to our children that will allow them to grow beyond what the school can offer.

But many, many families cannot.  They cannot for many reasons beyond their ability to control.  And there are many, many children with “gifts and talents” from families who cannot buy them materials or spend significant time with them to develop those abilities.  To take away, or not to fund gifted education programs in the public schools is classism, racism and discrimination at its worst because what we are telling our society is that the only people who get to lead, to grow or to learn at their own rate are those who can afford it. Because what we are saying is that only “some” children are to learn in schools, only “some” children get to learn something new today, and only “some” children have their educational needs met.  This is a battle that children with different racial backgrounds won in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education; it is a battle that children with disabilities won in 1975 with the passage of PL 94-142; and it is a battle that children who learn too fast, too in-depth and outside the box have yet to win.

For you see, schools do not, by law, “have to” maximize education- they do not have to show benefit to all students.   For if there’s one thing we know, it’s that many, many kids do not benefit from school.  We know that those children from poverty who start off strong in early elementary school, but do not have their “exceptional” needs met, who are not challenged, who are not served- those children fail.  And they fail in huge numbers.  And many, many of them do not go on to finish high school; and of those that finish high school most do not go on to college; and of those who do finish college, most do not go on to graduate school.  They do not become the successes that they started off with the potential to be.  In other words, they do NOT just “make it on their own”.  And what have we lost when the system did not allow its best and brightest to go forward?  I’ll tell you- we’ve lost the ability to change the system…

Educationally, we know that kids who are learning quickly, who are creative, and who are not challenged are being let down.  But even culturally, they suffer.  It’s culturally acceptable to laugh at the “nerds”, the “geeks” and the “brainiacs”.  At the real school level, when the kid who is reading Jane Austen on the bus is laughed at, no one steps in.  No one stops the other kid from ripping the book out of her hands.  No one stops kids from snickering when the fourth grader asks a questions that relates our Civil War to the crisis in Iraq.  No one stops a teacher who yells at a kid who came up with an alternative way to solve a physics problem.  We would NEVER allow such responses if the child were blind, deaf or in a wheelchair.  We are working on having such behavior be unacceptable for children with autism, with intellectual and developmental delays, or with learning disabilities.  Bullying is bullying- and just because a child is who they are is no right for differences to be mocked, to be taunted, or to feel afraid- no matter the nature of the differences.


There are services out there to help my daughter with her challenges- she got Early Intervention services, she got speech, she got occupational therapy.  We had access to sensory rooms, modulated music, diet help, neurologists… it was an amazingly long list.  We had itemized lists in the forms of goals of all of the things she couldn’t do.  And in all of those years and all of that work and all of those professionals, nowhere did anyone ever ask, “And what can we do to help her strengths?”  That was left up to me.  That was supposed to be something that I could do- alone.  Even though her strengths helped her improve in her areas of challenge.  Even though her challenges were impacting her areas of strength.  Even though no one had ever quite worked with someone like my daughter before.  I was encouraged to focus on her areas of challenge- but no one from her therapies ever helped me identify how to help her grow in all of her areas. And when my son’s original tests showed that he was “normal”, only one psychologist ever said “Hmmm- there are some interesting patterns- let’s try a set of tests to see what’s going on- oh look!  He has anxiety and ADHD and Tourette’s and giftedness going on.   You’ll have a challenging time with him.  Here are some recommendations.”

I found help.  I connected with other twice-exceptional parents who shared my pain, I found psychologists who understood and I am an educator who can talk to other educators.  I told my story about my daughter and my son and our journey so that others would have similar tools.  I’m lucky.


Labels aren’t about value or love or pain- even though they can cause them.  Labels are terms designed to help provide guidance for services.  When labels outlive their usefulness and start to mean other things, they should be changed.  “Intellectual and Development Delay” is the label replacing “mental retardation”.  (It’s about time, too!)  “Mental Retardation” replaced the terms “Idiot” and “Imbecile”.  Can’t say I’m crazy about the label “gifted”, but it doesn’t have a good replacement yet.  But whatever the WORD that the label is called, it is describing a DIFFERENCE- a difference to be celebrated, a difference to be appreciated, a difference to be dealt with.  And if you celebrate one form of difference, if you acknowledge that there are different ways in which you interact with children, you have to celebrate them all.

After all, my child’s differences are no more or less important than yours.  All children are special.  All children have something to learn and something to share.  And all children, ALL CHILDREN must be appreciated- regardless of what form of services or educational interventions or “differences” they have.


  1. As a teacher, I believe that the positives of labeling would be that child may then recieve some of the help that they may may need in the areas in which they are having problems in. If the child is not labled with a disability a teacher may never know what the child may be able or not able to do in his/her classroom. If a child isn’t labeled then they do not recieve the funding or help for what ever they are having problems with which is a negative perspective to me. Why should a child be labled because they may or may not be able to help whatever situation they are considered labeled under.

    Comment by Ashley Day — August 28, 2010 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  2. I agree with Ashley, in that labels can assist children in receiving the assistance they require from a school system. As the mother of a “gifted” child, I have also seen this label work to his disadvantage. Often teachers assume he needs little to no instruction when completing his “general classroom” work, and he is embarassed to ask for it. I sometimes think because he knows he is “gifted” he puts little effort into simple task like spelling. This backfires quite regularly causing low grades on things like reading journals, spelling, and memorizing math facts. In closing,I believe labels have their purpose and there is no way aroung using them, but we have to be careful to understand no one can fit perfectly under a single heading.

    Comment by Brandy Bennett — August 28, 2010 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

  3. […] I don’t have to follow perfect grammar and punctuation rules!  And sometimes, I get to respond to other people’s thoughts!  Blogging, for me, is a wonderful “at this moment” diary as I process through things, […]

    Pingback by Readers Welcome « Professor Mother Blog — September 18, 2010 @ 7:51 am | Reply

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