Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Special needs and common needs

on 2011 June 27

At a week long summer camp, I observed that seven of the ten youth were often moving as a pack and bantering with each other while the other three were clearly not part of that pack. You might say they were left out (but I have a different interpretation below). Here’s a social map of it, ignoring for now the differences between the majority.

If these three outliers were taken to a psychologist, my guess is that they would get these labels: girl, 12: autism spectrum (question mark in the map); boy, 11: ADHD (fuzzy in the map); and girl, 14: emotionally disturbed (maybe; sad face in the map). The boy would often be jumping up and down and being loud when others were quiet. The younger girl seemed perpetually unsure and didn’t speak much. The older girl would isolate herself and had a surprising lack of knowledge of everyday things. All this is just the negative labeling, in the sense that it could suggest they shouldn’t be like they are. That’s not my point – I liked them just as they are and didn’t want to change them or help them be any different.

My point is to use this group of kids to illustrate “needs”. The three outliers might be classified as having “special needs”. I am going to turn the idea of special needs upside down by looking at the behavior of the majority and first ask what their needs are.

The pack of seven was spending a lot of time laughing and teasing each other, usually supportively and sometimes with some one-upmanship, and often jockeying for the center of attention. In short, it was what most people call normal and healthy teen social development. They do this because of a deep desire to find their identity and create relationships, and it appears to come naturally. It is a legitimate need, so we can say truthfully that teens “need” to be with other teens.

Kinds of needs

But this need to be with other teens is not a fundamental or universal need, in the same way that air, water and shelter are needs. Therefore we must distinguish universal needs from common needs. Universal needs are those things that virtually all people need: water, food, shelter, and rest. A longer list of nearly universal needs includes love, peace, contribution, expression, safety, trust, empathy, hope, and autonomy. Although a devil’s advocate might argue that it is technically possible to live without these, any person living without these is living without his or her needs being met. In that sense, these are all universals.

While the pack was doing its bantering, the three others were often waiting, not really doing anything. I believe that the minority of three simply didn’t experience the need the same way. In this small sample, the need to be in a social pack with other youth was experienced by only 70% of the population, not 100%. Some might say the three outliers still needed it but were unable to meet their needs (due to lack of skills) but I don’t think so because these particular youth were effective at doing other things that they had motivation for, but they were clearly not motivated for the alleged need in question.

The situation calls for distinguishing three categories of needs, which I’m calling universal, common and special needs. Common needs are experienced by a majority, while special needs are experienced by a minority. Both common and special needs are molded by the culture, and dependent on the environment, and are not universals. They are sometimes values expressed as needs, such as “In today’s world, people need to be able to use the internet.” They are sometimes a statement of the burden that a person places on the rest of society. The same person can have different needs in different situations, like needing supervision in a city but not needing supervision in the country.

Here are some examples of each:

Universal needs – examples

Needs dependent on culture and environment

Common needs – examples

Special needs – examples

food, water, air, shelter, rest, love, peace, contribution, expression, safety, trust, empathy, hope, autonomy to be fed until age 2

to be supervised until age 18

to bond with age-mates

to learn to read in 1st grade



to be fed until age 15

to be supervised life long

books in large print

short or long class periods

braille signage


It may be easier to see how common needs are not needed by certain people when you consider physical disabilities. A totally blind person, for example, doesn’t need paint or architectural accents. If everyone was blind, the total cost of the built environment would be less, not more, because buildings could be simplified on account of the fact that blind people have fewer needs. Blind people are not disabled by blindness itself, but rather by the fact that the world is built for sighted people. The great deal of attention and expense that we incur on behalf of sighted people is the thing that disables the blind. The same idea applies to autistic people, many of whom don’t make much use of industries like entertainment, fashion, and sports. If everyone was autistic, whole industries would be unnecessary because we don’t have those needs as much as others. The point of this diversion is just that a lot of people don’t experience the needs of the majority.

Among the ten youth in the summer camp, I suspected that the three who stood out were not (as normally assumed) different on account of having special needs, but were in fact different on account of not having some of the common needs. That’s the opposite of the widespread assumptions. The common needs that the majority was experiencing were the merrymaking relationship-building time that I described above. I think that the three outliers were actually getting their needs met (because they usually appeared to be happy) but they were getting them met in less time than the others, and consequently they had to wait while the majority did what they needed to meet their other needs.

The lesson here is that those with special needs don’t necessarily require more work or more money (more teachers, more counselors, smaller classes) than anyone else; they might even have fewer needs than others overall, even if some of the needs they have are unusual.

Needs mismatch between teacher and youth

If we understand these culturally dependent needs as explained above, then a prominent question is: how can adults plan an educational or camp program for children whose needs are different than the adults’ needs? I’ve often been in that situation, when I’ve planned youth programs when I’m more like one of three outliers at the camp. I know they need the typical teen stuff (even if I don’t experience it the same way) and I budget that time into the plan, and then I just tend to wait it out. On the other hand, I’ve also projected some of my needs onto youth when they were not interested. For example, I’ve assumed that a child needs more direction than they really did need, or that they needed an intervention in a conflict, when in retrospect it was clear that no such thing was needed.

There is a parallel with doctors. For example, some people complain that gynecologists should be female because males couldn’t possibly understand female parts or conditions. But this position is unsupportable because most of what all doctors treat are conditions that they themselves have never had. (Should all liposuctionists be obese? Should all veterinarians who treat cracked hooves be horses themselves?) Obviously doctors are trained from the point of view that the patients are different from themselves; medicine is not an art of projecting needs onto the patient. And that is how it has to be with teachers; in general, it is not practical to find teachers whose ability/disability labels are the same as all of the youth whom they teach.

This brings me to special ed teachers and others who program for youth having “special needs”. Those teachers should not project common needs onto the youth who might not experience those needs. For example, teaching autistic preschoolers (who have low tendencies toward acculturation) about culturally based concepts like the days of the week and the months of the year could be a waste of time, since that kind of information exchange is not necessarily needed by those children. (The information itself will probably be acquired anyway, but not in the typical time line and in the adult-mediated format.) All the effort to make the shy person more social, the active person more calm, or the blind person more seeing is a fight against who they are, it is deficit oriented, and fails to account for what their actual needs are. We cannot assume that people who are neurologically or cognitively atypical have the same educational needs as everyone else.

By letting go of these assumed needs, there is a great deal of cost savings, the reason for which is along the lines of why buildings for the blind should be cheaper. You can let go of the deficit focus and let go of all the tools and staffing that is built around the deficit focus. And there is another reason: People don’t like it when their needs are not met, and under those conditions, children try to escape or destroy things, and the system develops a more extensive social control apparatus. When children’s actual needs are being met, their natural motivation makes them need less supervision and the whole thing costs less.


One response to “Special needs and common needs

  1. This is quite interesting! I’ve been thinking a lot about my social needs lately, because I don’t get much out of the usual ways that people are social, yet I also do need to be social sometimes in a way that works for me.

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