how do you know if your child has autism?
Before you can decide whether to label a child with autism you have to know they have autism in the first place. Some intuit their infant child has autism before they get a formal diagnosis. Others, like Scottish singer Susan Boyle, learn about their condition when they’re an adult. In my son’s case, a pediatric psychologist informed me my four year old had autism on Thursday, April 24th, 2008 as she handed me a box of tissues. Important dates like that you remember. Or rather, you can’t forget.
I didn’t know folks who had the disorder other than Autism’s First Lady, Temple Grandin. Temple seemed to be doing okay, so I shouldn’t worry too much. I remained composed during the appointment but screamed inside. At that time, and in Tulsa, OK, autisnm expertise and resources were scant. The tears started to flow at the realization of the label explaining Devlin’s violent tantrums and obsessions.
labels are only the beginning
Finally, though, there was a reason Devlin had speech and language difficulties. His ritualistic rigid behavior and tendency to perseverate on certain topics/objects started to make sense. My first instinct was to shield Dev from any sort of label. I weighed not advising his pre-school teachers of his diagnosis. Looking back, I can’t imagine I ever considered trying to hide it.
Labels are a sticky matter because they can be used for good or evil. On the one hand, labels can serve to further alienate a person or encourage a person to behave consistent with their label. Constantly pointing out that “Johnny is the sensitive one” might have the unintended consequence of leading Johnny to believe he will always be histrionic and then his hysteria develops into a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Devlin is autistic” tends to indicate that this is how I define Devlin as opposed to “My son has autism” which describes one of his attributes.
to label a child with autism has risks
Labels can also serve a very useful purpose. From a practical standpoint, your child isn’t going to get the public services they need if they don’t have a diagnosis. Educators can’t address problem behaviors as quickly if they don’t understand a child has a particular diagnosis. Teachers can’t position a child with vision problems at the front of the class if they don’t know the child has difficulty seeing the board.
Potential friends may dismiss someone on the spectrum summarily if they are taught that different is bad. I submit that those assholes weren’t friend material anyway. If I know someone has a fear of heights, I’m not going to make them stand near the cliff’s edge. This information allows me to treat them with increased understanding.
If parents friends & teachers act like the label isn’t self-limiting, then it isn’t, and won’t be.
risks of not labeling a child with autism
Yes, some people will jump to conclusions about the label based on their own prejudices and not investigate any further. But if we aren’t honest, if we don’t put the label out there, the negative pre-conceptions will remain because we are doing nothing to challenge them. You are unlikely to dislodge long-held stereotypes some people hang onto, so I don’t even try.
But for most of us, those who have an open mind and an open heart, you have the chance to give that person a basis for understanding your child. Trust me, they already know he’s different. That cat was out of the bag the seventieth time Devlin asked them their address and recited, turn by turn, street by street, how to get to their house from here. If we, as parents, friends and teachers, act like the label isn’t self-limiting, then it isn’t, and it won’t be.
The label is just the first step in understanding Devlin. It gives us a jumping-off point to say that not everything is as it seems. As we talk about differences and special needs, we de-stigmatize them. Where labeling is a disservice to people on the spectrum is to give them a label and then not give them tools to deal with that label. Not putting a label on it makes as much sense as not telling someone of the side effects of a particular medicine because some people are psycho-somatic and will develop those symptoms based on suggestion.
labels provide common understanding but you can’t stop there
You would never deny the majority of folks who aren’t susceptible to suggestion helpful information they could use to monitor their own expectations of how the medicine might affect them. The same holds true for people on the spectrum. Ms. Boyle wasn’t just a weird, sometimes anti-social instant celebrity after all. Though she has been those things, she serves as proof that you are not the sum of your diagnosis.