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Building Understanding and Acceptance for Children with Special Needs

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Imagine this: while you were on the way to work, you saw a young child crying hysterically and having a meltdown on the MRT. He refused to stop even at the coaxing of his parent, and his cries could be heard across the cabins. How would you feel if all you wanted was some peace and quiet before work started? You see every passenger looking at the boy and the parent in distaste, and one of them even retorted, “Could you please control your child?”

Children with special needs face widespread stigma and discrimination from negative perceptions about disabilities. Meltdowns are common in some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a type of special need, partially because of their inability to communicate their needs to their parents.  Some may start forming negative opinions about these children, such that they are loud, uncontrollable, or even violent.  However, our frowns and displeasure are damaging to the child with special needs and their parents.  In the face of isolation and shame, the parents and the child continue to experience distress and strain under the weight of societal disapproval and judgement (Sarris, 2022).

The detrimental effects of stigma and discrimination affects their self-perception and psychological well-being.  This article will discuss some negative consequences of stigma on children with special needs with the hopes that we can take steps towards a more loving and inclusive society.

Negative Impact of Stigma

1. Self-Esteem

A common misconception about children with special needs is that they have low intelligence and are mentally handicapped. The stigma and stereotyping of special needs children that they may be “dumb” impacts the child’s self-concept and their belief about themselves (Cae, 2018). Prolonged, these children may start believing in the misconceptions, leading to a decrease in their self-esteem as they believe that they are lacking and lesser than their peers.

2. Mental-Emotional Health

Research studies have found an association between stigmatisation and the worsening of one’s mental-emotional health. A study by Lackay & Margalit (2006) highlighted that students with learning disabilities experience a significant decline in their levels of hope and self-efficacy. They tend to be in a less positive mood compared to their peers with no learning disabilities. One thing leads to another; with lower self-efficacy, these students would invest less time in their studies, leading to a drop in their academic performance. Another research found an increased sense of shame, anxiety, and depressive symptoms in stigmatised children and their families (Cantwell et al., 2015; Mercado et al., 2021).

3. Effects on Parents

The repercussions do not only fall on the shoulders of children but their parents as well. A study done on parents of children with ASD emphasises how such parents are often blamed for being the cause of their child’s disabilities (Wong et al., 2016) – perhaps, through passing on bad genes or “experiencing karma”. Furthermore, due to their child’s behavioural challenges, the parents are condemned for their incompetent parenting (Gray, 1993). These experiences and public disapproval leave the parents feeling humiliated, judged, and isolated (Broady et al., 2017).

4. Increases Barriers to Seek-Help

Stigma also keeps parents away from seeking help, accessing services, or attaining health information that can benefit their child (Link & Hatzenbuehler, 2016). In fear of an official diagnosis that could potentially label their child and cause them to be shunned by society, parents would rather keep the condition under wraps. However, this, unfortunately, restricts the child’s access to help that can aid them in becoming successful and productive members of society.

It is vital that we work towards a more inclusive and accepting society as children with special needs are just as precious and worthy of respect and dignity.  They too, have aspirations and desire to achieve their potential and participate as integral members of society.  The recently launched Enabling Masterplan 2030 sets forth the strategies to help as move forward in our vision to be a disability-inclusive society with equal opportunities and choices for them to live their life to the fullest.  We can all play a part to make this vision a reality, starting with showing care and concern for parents and children with special needs in our midst.  If you are a parent struggling with this, know that you do not stand alone.  Be sure to seek support for yourself and your child if needed.

If you would like to have parenting support, register your interest at https://go.fycs.org/PSS, email us at [email protected] or call 88694006. Our parenting support services are offered free. 

Find out more about Enabling Masterplan here: https://www.msf.gov.sg/policies/Disabilities-and-Special-Needs/Enabling-Masterplan-2030/Pages/default.aspx

Written by Tan Kai Qing, Intern, Fei Yue Community Services



Broady, T. R., Stoyles, G. J., & Morse, C. (2017). Understanding carers’ lived experience of stigma: The voice of families with a child on the autism spectrum. Health & social care in the community25(1), 224-233.

Cae. (2018). Can stigma affect children with learning disorders?. College of Allied Educators. Retrieved from: https://cae.edu.sg/can-stigma-affect-children-with-learning-disorders/

Cantwell, J., Muldoon, O., & Gallagher, S. (2015). The influence of self‐esteem and social support on the relationship between stigma and depressive symptomology in parents caring for children with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research59(10), 948-957.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity Simon and Schuster. New York3.

Gray, D. E. (1993). Perceptions of stigma: The parents of autistic children. Sociology of Health & Illness15(1), 102-120.

Lackaye, T., & Margalit, M. (2006). Comparisons of achievement, effort, and self-perceptions among students with learning disabilities and their peers from different achievement groups. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 432-446. doi:10.1177/00222194060390050501 ‘

Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualising stigma. Annual review of Sociology, 363-385.

Link, B., & Hatzenbuehler, M. L. (2016). Stigma as an unrecognised determinant of population health: Research and policy implications. Journal of health politics, policy and law41(4), 653-673.

Mercado, A., Morales, F., Torres, A., Chen, R. K., Nguyen-Finn, K. L., & Davalos-Picazo, G. (2021). Mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders: Examining the roles of familism, social support, and stigma in Latinx caregivers. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities33(4), 653-668.

Sarris, M. (2022). The Stigma of Autism: When Everyone is Staring at You. Spark. Retrieved from: https://sparkforautism.org/discover_article/stigma-autism/

Wong, C. C., Mak, W. W., & Liao, K. Y. H. (2016). Self-compassion: A potential buffer against affiliate stigma experienced by parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. Mindfulness7(6), 1385-1395.