Stop Giving Awards to my Kid with Special Needs

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Please stop giving awards for the sake of giving awards, or in the name of inclusion, to my kid with special needs.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

Recent articles sounded the bell

By now you may have seen a version of this article show up in your news feed: “Teacher mocks autistic student with ‘most annoying’ award, parent complains.”

Indeed, this story received national attention. In this article, reporter Carley Lanich describes how a fifth grade student with nonverbal autism received a trophy inscribed with “Bailey Preparatory Academy 2018-2019 Most Annoying Male, ” along with the school district’s response to the unthinkable act.

In fact, Times of Indiana reports fifth grade students celebrated the end of the school year with a luncheon for teachers, students, and parents. The event included a “Students’ Choice Awards” ceremony where students, chosen by their peers, were awarded trophies for various categories.

the fallout

Rick Castejon, the boy’s father, admits he was shocked at the “Most Annoying Male” award, but did not want to cause a scene. He explained that his son didn’t understand the meaning of the trophy and was not upset, but as a parent he questioned the school’s judgment in giving such an award. The next day, the father contacted the school district with his concerns.

After the initial article about the boy with autism receiving the “Most Annoying” title, this news story received national attention. Subsequently, there’s been public outcry for the firing of the teacher who should have known better. (They may just get their wish. In a June 12th article, it says that the District is seeking to terminate the teacher’s employment.)

Shortly thereafter, this article was posted, detailing a student with Special Needs getting a “Huh?” award as part of the annual “Ghetto Awards Ceremony” from a school just outside of the Dallas, Texas area.

This phenomenon isn’t new. In fact, a 2017 article illustrated a middle school student who received a trophy for “Most like to not pay attention,” a direct nod to the student’s struggle with ADHD. Perhaps in this age of instant photos and videos we are just learning the extent of this problem, but I suspect it isn’t new.

how does this happen, we ask

This article sparked many “How does this happen?” comments. Teresa Cooper, a special educator, writes about teacher attitudes toward special education students. Citing a study conducted by MacFarlane and Woolfson (2013), she concluded that teacher bias against special education students is real and must be addressed.

As a parent of a child with autism and intellectual disability, I have always disliked these end-of-year “awards” ceremonies.

Where I live, end-of-year awards happen in the special ed classroom instead of with the larger student body. Every child receives an award. While I believe the intent is good, I’ve always left them with an uneasy feeling.

My daughter has received awards over the years for different end-of-year events; two stick out in my mind. The first, “Most likely to become a Lawyer” award (prefaced by explaining how she has an “argument for everything”). Second, the “Most Inquisitive” award, that accompanied a story about how she often and exhaustingly asks “Why.” Even a “Most improved” award is a broadcasting the difficulty she has with learning.

uneasy feelings

On its face, these are cute awards, but as I sat through each, I felt unsettled. It didn’t bother my daughter, and folks around me seemed un-phased, so I thought I was taking it too personally; reading too much into it; making a mountain out of a mole hill as they say. After all, what’s wrong with being inquisitive? I felt shame – how DARE I question someone’s motives — I should just be happy they are recognizing my kid.

But, if I’m being honest, I feel as though they took my child’s challenges and poked a little fun at them in the name of “awards.” She has many challenges and has made great strides – many of which could have been recognized.

Make it meaningful

I am not against awards or recognition, but make it meaningful. This past year, for example, my daughter collected plastic grocery bags for a local organization that makes mats for area homeless. She collects can tabs for Special Olympics each year. She decorates collection bins and makes the ‘ask’ to various organizations to help. A testament to hard work, she improved an entire grade level in reading.

This story has certainly ruffled feathers everywhere, but to me, it illustrates a very blatant example of what can happen anywhere, even if much more subtly. For me, in a strange way, was validating. I should have trusted my feelings during those ceremonies. Moreover, I should have spoken out about my feelings. My daughter has achievements (outside of being inquisitive) to celebrate.

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Welcome to Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from special needs bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and Mommy Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about having a special needs kiddo — from Sensory Processing Disorder to ADHD, from Autism to Dyslexia! 
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