What are your Special Needs?

“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs. But this is stupid because everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult and also everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.”
-Mark Haddon, The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

Every single human being is “on the spectrum.” There’s no such thing as normal. Though we as a society prefer to label and categorize people, every individual is so unique and complex that diagnoses oversimplify and lead to generalizations. (“Oh, he has Asperger’s, so he must be like this other kid I knew who had Asperger’s.”)

Learning is challenging; each of us experiences different degrees of difficulty with learning and retaining information, depending on a myriad of factors like our interest in the topic, the complexity of the material, our IQ, our ability to focus, our reading comprehension, our mood, and so forth. We all have learning differences in the ways we absorb, retain and utilize both theoretical knowledge and practical experiences, as well as in the ways we develop wisdom.

Everyone has special needs. The school system is overwhelmed with students who do not fit into a neat box that corresponds to grade level expectations and are unable to attain the state-mandated knowledge and skills or to pass their all-important standardized tests. Because all students have special needs. There are the special ed. kids. There are the gifted kids. There are the so-called “regular” kids who each have their own special needs, unique characteristics and evolving strengths and weaknesses.

I spent my third year of teaching (2008-09) as a bilingual elementary special education teacher. I wrote this on my blog in October 2008:

Today, Raul told me, “Miss Fajkus, I know what Special Ed stands for… Special adventures!” What a cutie! I like that my job title includes the word “special.” I strive to be patient. Most of my students cannot focus for more than a minute without me reminding them to do so.

I know the English and Spanish alphabets backward and forward, and could now recite them in my sleep. (“Chile, chile, ch-ch-ch; gato, gato, g-g-g; itch, itch, i-i-i, octopus, octopus, o-o-o”) I am teaching  letter sounds and blends in Spanish and English.

It is a slow process that begs for patience and compassion. The lessons may not be so thrilling to teach, but there are great lessons to be learned, every day.

We humans are all special, quirky, complicated and fascinating in our own ways. We are all on multiple spectrums, and we are all doing our best to find balance and live in happiness, peace and freedom.

One of my own personal special needs is the need to travel, to go new places and experience new things. Hence, I somewhat whimsically decided to pursue a teaching job abroad in 2009. Because of my special ed. certification, I was hired and entrusted with the task of establishing a learning support program for high school students with special needs at the American School of Guatemala. I moved to a place I’d never been before (Guatemala City) six weeks later.

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