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The Autism Label Controversy: A Child's View

Posted by Claudia M Gold  January 22, 2012 12:15 PM

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Child's voice. " I am very smart and tuned in to everything happening around me. I get overwhelmed when there are a lot of people. I love music, but I hear every sound so intensely that I need to cover my ears. Sometimes I run around in circles to help myself calm down. When grown-ups make me go somewhere that is too loud or confusing, I lie down on the floor and scream. When people get too close I cant' stand it. Sometimes I hit the other kids when this happens and now I can't go to preschool. My parents fight all the time about what to do about my difficult behavior. My little sister is very quiet because she knows to get out of the way when I am having trouble"

Adult's voice. "He has Autism"

Certainly this child and his family need help. An occupational therapist consulting in the school setting would be able to help this child give words to his experience. She could support both the teachers' efforts to understand what environments are challenging and how to manage these challenges. She might even recommend a different school setting that is more compatible. A therapist working with parents and child together would similarly help them as a family to manage this child's unique biological vulnerabilities.

If the proposed changes to the diagnostic criteria for autism in DSM V, the newest version of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, result in children like this not getting the help they need, as a recent article in the New York Times suggests, it will be a terrible loss for these families. It will result in increased costs to society when these unaddressed problems grow into bigger problems in later childhood and adulthood, as they inevitably will.

This fear was expressed by Lori Shery, president of the Asperger Syndrome Education Network, when she was quoted in the article saying “If clinicians say, ‘These kids don’t fit the criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis,’ they are not going to get the supports and services they need, and they’re going to experience failure."

But the real question is this: Why have we created a health care system where the insurance industry, a for-profit business, is allowed to dictate our children's experience in this way?

The need for a diagnosis is primarily driven by the health insurance industry. Clinicians need to have something to bill for, so that services are "covered.". " As I state in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind," [This] is a dangerous example of the tail wagging the dog."

From the young child's perspective, there is a significant downside to receiving such a label. As my book states:

Parents who receive a label of a major psychiatric diagnosis for their child inevitably go through a period of mourning. The child they had is gone and has been replaced by a child with a “disorder.” As D. W. Winnicott so wisely observed, a child develops a healthy sense of self when the people who care for him recognize the meaning of his behavior, rather than substituting their own adult meaning. Parents often begin to regard behaviors as “symptoms” of the “disorder.” For a very young child whose development is unfolding, his “true self” might be lost in the face of such a frightening label. It is my hope that we can move from an emphasis on diagnosis and labeling to an emphasis on prevention. We need to ask not “what is the disorder?” but rather, “what is the experience of this particular child and family?” and “what can we do to move things in a better direction?”
From a young child's perspective, the diagnosis with a psychiatric disorder reduces the complexity of his experience to a label that by its very nature indicates that there is something "wrong with him."

I had a similar discussion with a child psychiatrist who is advocating for the diagnosis of "preschool depression." Certainly young children can struggle with disturbances of mood, and, as is the case with the above child, these families need help, and early intervention is essential to prevent more significant and deeply entrenched difficulties.

But as is the case with the diagnosis of autism, the diagnosis of depression in a young child reduces the complexity of his experience to a disorder, and clearly locates the problem within the child. Often there is a complex interaction between the child's unique biological vulnerabilities and his environment. Qualities that are problems in early childhood may, with the right help, be transformed into adaptive assets as he grows up.

In a previous post I wrote about a new book, Childism, that calls attention to a kind of prejudice against children that exists in our culture. In a sense this kind of labeling can be seen as a manifestation of that prejudice.

Many parents of children with the diagnosis of autism object to my perspective, describing relief that the things they were struggling with had a name. But what if teachers, friends, grandparents, and clinicians were respectful of their struggles and provided help without having to burden their child with a "disorder?" I suspect that these same parents would prefer the latter scenario.

By focusing the discussion on the question: "what are the diagnostic criteria for autism,", we are failing to see the forest for the trees. The real question is "Why are we as a society willing to give the insurance industry so much control over our children's lives?"
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »


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