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Child with special needs, not a special-needs child

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My bet is that many producers subtlety and unintentionally offend clients who are parents of children with special needs by using improper terminology when referring to those clients’ children.

It is a widespread problem that most people — particularly those who don’t have a child with special needs — get wrong almost every time. Even President Obama was guilty of it during the first presidential debate on Oct. 3.

So here it is: do not call someone “an autistic child.” Say “a child with autism.” Don’t say “a Down syndrome child.” Say “a child with Down syndrome.” Do not say “a special-needs child.” Say “a child with special needs.” Don’t say “a handicapped child” or “a disabled child.” Say “a child with special needs.”

Just remember, child first — not disability first. You may think this is a trivial distinction, but I promise you it is not, especially to the parents of a child with special needs. Believe me, they notice, and they’ll really appreciate it when you get it right. If you put yourself out there as an expert in insuring parents of children with special needs, you need to get it right. It will build your credibility in the minds of your clients. Care enough to speak correctly when it comes to their children.

My wife, who is a preschool special education teacher, cringes every time she hears someone refer to a child with autism as “an autistic child.” And it really bugs her when she hears other teachers refer to children with special needs in a “disability first” way. And don’t even think about using the word “retarded” in any circumstance. The term “intellectual disability” is now preferred by most advocates.