Special Needs Children: Should I Label My Kid?
For some, it's a godsend. For others, it's a stigmatizing professional opinion—and sometimes even a misdiagnosis. Read about kids who were labeled with a disorder, and what it meant, for better and for worse. Plus, read one mom's moving letter to her special needs son’s school principal
Those in favor of labeling point out that the best treatment starts early: The quicker you pinpoint what's ailing your child, the faster you can get him extra support or even medication. “If having a diagnosis is going to get your child the help he needs, go for it,” says pediatrician Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411. Even so, getting some diagnoses may soon get harder: The American Psychiatric Association is tightening its pediatric autism guidelines in May 2013, which means fewer kids may qualify for intervention services.
There's also a relief that comes with being able to “blame” a medical disorder. “People are a lot less likely to be judgmental of your child's odd behavior, and your parenting skills, if they know your child has something definable,” says Ivy Chong, Ph.D., director of autism services and training at the Scott Center for Autism Treatment at the Florida Institute of Technology, in Melbourne, FL.
But diagnosis is subjective. There's no blood or tissue test for autism, bipolar disorder, ADHD, or any developmental or mental health disorder, for that matter. “These illnesses exist, but diagnosing them can be a professional judgment call—and doctors can be wrong,” says Scott Shannon, M.D., a child psychiatrist, founder of the Wholeness Center in Fort Collins, CO, and author of Please Don't Label My Child. Usually, parents themselves fill out assessments. “There were a zillion questions, and many of them seemed repetitive,” recalls Christina Lauro*, a mom in Babylon, NY. “I sweated that Aiden's* diagnosis hinged on my answers.” For example, was Aiden “angry and frustrated,” or did he “express frustration in an aggressive way”?
When a diagnosis like ADHD is stamped on a folder, Dr. Shannon says parents and professionals may stop looking for other solutions. And that's many parents' biggest fear: that future teachers will only see an ADHD case, and not their child. Dr. Shannon believes there are many ways to help such kids—from dietary to sleep changes. “But once a kid is labeled, parents accept that something's ‘wrong’ with her, the child feels ‘broken,’ and families tend to turn too quickly to meds.”
If you're torn, you're in good company. Here, four families' experiences:
- Autism Warning Signs
- "My Son Had Autism. Then He Didn't."
- Can Your Child Have Autistic Traits Without Being Autistic?