The “DIFFERENCE Is Not DEFICIT” Project

A New Community Vision for Special Education

Our schools are not built for a typical students. In fact, it seems we have specifically built systems that aim to pathologize and marginalize anyone outside the so called “norms.” So despite the work of civil rights activists, and fields like disability studies, many students with “invisible disabilities” find themselves lost in the chaos of schooling designed for a very specific type of learner. 

These systems do not just make life hard for students or parents. Many educators, eager to help and understand their students’ differences, find themselves limited by the rigidity of the traditional special education system. But the truth is, change is possible and individual people, students, parents, therapists, advocates, and educators continue to fight to make necessary changes. The Difference is Not Deficit Project is a place to share the individual stories of these struggles so we can use them to improve the system from the inside out. Stories matter. Each of our failures, fights, and triumphs matter. 

How did you feel? How did you fight? How did you fail? How did you overcome? Please share your unique story so we can learn from your experiences and work to build a more just system based on our shared struggles and our common goals. 

Share as much or as little of your information as you like. All the fields are optional so you can submit your story completely anonymously if that’s your preference.

Position (Mom), Diagnosis (ASD and ADHD)

I am frustrated at my 3rd grader struggling with work and students in school saying things bc he is slower can’t pick things up as quick. LAUSD just Doesn’t want to give him the educational help he needs to succeed. Traditional methods and repeating same instructions DO not help him make the connection s himself. Making him go to after school extra classes defeats the purpose of school having to TEACH him materials. We helped teach him in 2nd grade zoom class. We tried our best to teach him a way he can learn, end of 2jd grade math and reading were 2nd grade 7 mo level. We send him to school, 1s5 quarter 3rd grade with RSP and teacher there, his reading dropped substantially, and math didn’t improve by much! He is still at 12% reading and math about same. How can you say school has helped him? He hates school bc it’s hard. He has ASD and ADHD and he knows he’s different and “wishes his brain worked like other kids” Heart breaking when school thinks they are doing good, but actually, no. They can’t teach to his learning, and they don’t know how. Pounding in the same neurotypical way of learning, and not finding a way of learning to help him see the aha moments would only make his learning gap further from his peers!!! I am tired of this and want to tear my hair out. He has the IQ to accomplish in school, and even has the talent to learn the most awesome things. He is super smart but the learning connection is not there.

Still no 1:1 to help. Still no LMB or OG or other methods of teaching him. I am still teaching him naturalistically about physics, math, science, using video games on why building this certain building won’t hold: and how to get the correct speed and force/s to run a rollercoaster- create G forces, etc, or how the Big bang theory started and advancement of science, and what elements and neutrons look like… And how they become and make gamma rays. Frustrated mom.

Anonymous

What do you do when your one year old does not respond to his name, fails to call you mommy, and does not point to any object being referred to or fails to make eye contact? The alarm bells ring but you still hope and hope that he will start talking soon, or will interact better with his peers? Yet the nudging fear remains something to amiss?

Being a health professional myself, I could not ignore the signs of autism in my first born. With the help of paediatrician and child psychologists, a diagonosis of autism spectrum disorder was established.

Accepting it and trying to provide the best possible intervention in terms of speech and behaviour therapy were my initial targets. Luckily, once speech improved I was able to find an inclusive school, where he could be a part of a regular class with a shadow teacher who would help him move from one task to another, or calm him down when the situation got overwhelming. Another 2 years passed, and he assimilated into a routine, now without the resource teacher. The structure provided by school life helped and my son did not want a miss single day of school. However, social challenges remained and even a loud happy Birthday would result in sensory overload and often a meltdown.

The tricky part of this journey has been to pre-empt any stimulus or situation that leads to a meltdown or aggression because he is unable to vocalize his feelings quickly and simply lashes out when he feels he cannot cope. The heartbreaking bit is when he is bullied for being different or he realises he cannot be a part of the crowd. Growth spurts are tough and with neurological development, ADHD arose. A child psychiatrist prescribed catapress which helped him focus on school work.

Such is life, and one cannot be prepared for its various twists and turns. Adolescence kicked in and with the rafing hormones came a new set of problems. Ultimately relief was obtained with lithium and resperidone.

Awareness, acceptance and patience are keywords into raising such an individual, but building an includive society is the real target. As a parent and caretaker, I promise that raising a child who is on the spectrum may be difficult but definitely rewarding. Its just a question of unlocking their potential.

Position (Mom), Diagnosis (Autism and ADHD)

I was officially diagnosed with autism today at the age of 35.I feel kind of empty. I am not upset that I am autistic, but I am devastated I spent so many years not understanding who I am at such a core level.

I feel sadness for the little girl that could not soothe herself. I am sad that her parents were not given resources to understand her better. I am sad that they feel guilt. She always felt their love.

I am sad for her inner turmoil from math problems ending in certain numbers that made her squirm and would occupy her every thought for the rest of the day.

I am sad others didn’t share the overwhelming elation when she found palatable patterns. She felt like others must be experiencing similar perspectives and it is shocking to understand that they probably didn’t notice or care.

I feel for the girl reading, crocheting and doing endless backhand-springs (She made it to 22) because the other kids often didn’t play with her at recess.

I am sad for the girl that wore her clothes inside out and realized it later in the day at least 12 times in school, 4 times as a teacher including meet-the-teacher at a new school, and numerous times as a stay-at-home mom despite the devastating mortification each time.

I am sad for the girl that was bullied in school for breaking the curve and talking too much.

I am sad at the guilt and resentment she has carried all these years for her inability to quell her loquacious nature and her interruptions of others. I am sad that she felt so much regret for how she made others feel in these fleeting moments, and that she felt her character was flawed.

I am sad that others would make fun of her for being overly literal and missing sarcasm throughout her whole life.

I am sad for all the headaches and racing heart from smells, lights and loud sounds. I am sad that nobody really understood the real extent of the overstimulation she endures constantly.

I feel sad that she trusted people so fully because she (still) doesn’t understand why anyone would deceive her or anyone for that matter.

I am sad that she felt like a failure every time she had a meltdown in her marriage or as a mom. I am sad that she lost control over things nobody else noticed or cared about.

Mostly I am sad that she thought she wasn’t worthy or that there was something wrong with her. I am sad that she felt like a terrible person for not living up to insanely high standards in a world that was not designed for her.
* * *
I am sad because I am not wrong or less than, I think differently. I think beautifully.

I am incredibly honest, and I don’t lie because I don’t want to. I have the energy of a puppy at times, but with it comes an enthusiasm for life that is both unrivaled and infectious.

I may not always look at people’s eyes, but I can see the beauty within them. I genuinely look for the good in everyone and want to make others feel good about themselves.

I have an insatiable desire to learn anything and everything in excruciating detail and cannot wait to share knowledge with the world.
Because of this, despite being 35 and suffering from multiple, painful health conditions, I still believe my life is just beginning and that my options are as vast and limitless as the stars in the sky.

I may struggle to interact socially (or at least inwardly, under the mask), but I am very loving with my close circle. I give my whole heart to those I love. I am happy that some people truly love me for all of it.

My brain is beautiful. I am autistic.

Nicole’s Story (Parent)

 *S E N S O R Y •
Joey has difficulty with certain sensory things, the main one being touch.


He doesn’t like to touch certain textures like paint, play doh, or runny foods like soup or curry. He does however love to explore hard, bumpy or textured surfaces, and you’ll often see him running his hands over walls, railings and the ground 🥰 he also loves to be held tightly, and to be stroked and tickled! 💙


Joey has always hated having his hair cut, using a hood, or wearing a hat. Even from being a baby he always hated wearing a hat or hood, and I always felt guilty in the winter when his head would be wet or cold, but he would have a meltdown whenever we tired 😫
Today I tried him with a hat… and he wore it 😲 he wore it on a long walk, at the park, and all the way home. I couldn’t believe it!


Super proud of my boy, I know it’s only baby steps but to me this is a massive accomplishment and shows how he’s developing and learning 💙

Position (Teacher)

I actually think we have a really good special education system in our country. There is ample money from the federal government for special education programs. I also think it’s great that we have inclusion. Students with IEPs do well in my science class because I differentiate my teaching and make sure I include a lot of visual, hands on experiences for learning science. I also make sure I pair students up with others who can help them in team so they never feel lost. The regular students also benefit from the accommodations and differentiation we provide for students with special needs, so learning from the needs of our special students is beneficial for everyone.

Position (Teacher)

I would never say this out loud, because I absolutely believe in inclusion, but I don’t understand how we as classroom teachers can be expected to truly tend to the needs and differences of our learning disabled students when we have a class of 30 kids, demands from our administration, parents, and the job itself. I easily work 60-70 hours a week, and see as many as 150 students a day. It’s easy to blame teachers and expect them to do the impossible, but we are not trained in special education. We make any accommodations we can and offer as much support as possible, but every time I hear all the talk about inclusion and differentiation, it just sounds like things administrators like to say because it sounds good. We can barely get students to follow the main curriculum. How are we supposed to differentiate for all the different needs students come to us with? I’m sorry. I feel terrible. But this is what we teachers talk about behind the scenes.

Anonymous Story

I wish there was more active learning at school. That way we wouldn’t be stuck sitting in classrooms all day long. Active learning doesn’t have to be playing foursquare or hopscotch. Kids can actively learn by going outside and studying different species in nature for science class, or count how many maple trees are in one area and divide it evenly between their classmates for math. Active learning can also be implanted into fitness the class could go for a run and when you get back you can turn it into a math problem. If Jack ran 10 miles, Jamie ran 5 miles more than Cassandra but two miles less than Jack how many miles did they run total. Why can’t we do that? That would be so much better than having to sit quietly at a desk all day.

Anonymous Story

My first experience of disability was in first grade. I was the star student of my class, which was quite rigorous for a first grade classroom and excelling gave me such joy that I could not think of a better place than school. One day, we had a school field trip which included students from all the grades, 1-5. As a rule, we as first graders rarely got to see, much less hang out with the fifth graders and since becoming a “senior” one day was my biggest dream, hanging out near all the fifth graders all day felt super special. When we were told we would all get to
have lunch together (not separate like it usually was at school), I was ecstatic.

But when we all went to sit at the large communal table they had set out for us at lunch, I noticed a fifth grader I had never seen at school. I watched her walk off the bus and walk over to the table with the rest of her fifth grade class except that she was much smaller than them. She was even smaller than me!

Until that moment I had never seen or heard of a little person. I remember looking at her in shock. Why was her head so big? Why were her arms so short? But despite her jarring appearance to me what I noticed was the expression on her face. She looked so sad. Her head was tilted down and for the entirety of lunch, she never gazed up, not once. No one spoke to her. Her teachers or classmates barely acknowledged her. She sat there, alone, ashamed to be with her class, ashamed to be seen by us younger kids. And something about seeing her, the weight of her sadnesses, the way she didn’t look like any of us, just broke something in me. I realized that day that school wasn’t fun for everyone and that it wouldn’t matter how good I could be at school, what difference did it make when someone else could feel so bad, and not because they didn’t try or didn’t do homework, but through no fault of their own.

I’ll never forget that fifth grader or her sad eyes. She doesn’t know this and I didn’t know it for a long time either, but she played a big role in my wanting to be a teacher who works with different kids. I never wanted to see someone feel as sad as her in a school and I wanted to help. I hope she could know how important she was, even then, when all she felt was sadness.

Anonymous Story

When i was in the 4th grade we were walking up the staircase back to class when my friend tapped me and it felt like a hit but i stayed calm and put my hand on his shoulder when he slipped on the stair and it looked like i had pushed him even though i didn’t so me and him had to have a talk with the teacher and she made me walk with her all the way back to the class room and stand outside with him and my teacher while all the other kids in my class were able to do their work in class but we had to have a talk. I was trying to tell her what had happened but she kept on talking over me and not listening to what i had to say. I was so annoyed and i felt angry and also nerves. This was the same feeling i had when my teacher was teaching a subject and i spaced out for a moment and then spaced back in and she asked me a question that was easy because it was written on the board but she told me that after the fact, and i didnt now what to say because i wasn’t focusing at the time and i felt nerves that someone would make fun of me or the teacher would call me out for not hearing what she had said. I wish teachers would understand that not everyone is like them and that everyone is different.

Anonymous Story

As a coming in 9th grader, middle school was really hard for me. Especially because of the environment I was in it felt that I wasn’t smart enough to be there. While being surrounded by all these kids that seemed to know what they were doing in class or for any of the assignments I felt even more lost and confused. But as time went on I got closer with some of the students and even have of them were as lost as I was! Even now I still am a little loss, I struggle in many of my classes. I wish I didn’t have to take math or Latin class I wish that my teachers would and would’ve understood how frustrated it made me. Sometimes I wish that I could just drop out and never have to do school again. Sometimes I want to give up and never have to do another piece of math again but I know how disappointed my mom would be. That’s another thing my mom. I feel that she has a certain perspective about me that I’m lazy which makes it even harder for me to try my best in school when it seems like my mom doesn’t even really have faith in me.  It’s crazy because we all feel like it’s just me and I’m alone but I hope that you know that it’s not just you and that there’s at least one other person who understands.

One of One Educational Therapy provides in-home and virtual educational remediation, tutoring, and executive function support to neuro-diverse students in Los Angeles and the surrounding area.