I’ve read a few comments on various social networking sites from parents who are hesitant to pursue a diagnosis for their child because they worry about them being ‘labelled’ as autistic. I remember feeling that way myself when considering what was best for my 3 year old son. I’m no fan of the medical model, which has a tendency to reduce the complexities of a human being down to a set of symptoms requiring treatments.
I too was concerned that being labelled ‘autistic’ might feel overpowering for my son as he grows. That it might reduce him down to a medical diagnosis. I was also worried that it might make him a target for the judgement of others, who see only ‘autism’ when they learn of his diagnosis, and ascribe all their own assumptions about what that must mean.
I figured that the best way to explore the idea of what labelling my son as autistic might mean was to seek out autistic adults and ask them. Overwhelmingly I found that autistic adults who had been diagnosed as children were pleased that they had been given the word autism. Overwhelmingly I found that autistic adults who had not been diagnosed as children, wished that they had been given the word autism earlier. For me, autistic people are the experts on this issue and if they were telling me that labelling is important, I was going to listen.
Here’s what they told me.
Your child will not be targeted more or bullied more because they have the label autistic.
With or without the label, it’s likely that their differences will be noted by other kids and some of those kids will make life hard for them, because being different makes you an easy target. Having the label autistic might mean though that teachers and friends are on the look out for bullying and might take action to come to your child’s aid should they find themselves a target. It might also give them the opportunity to raise awareness with other kids about autism and in doing so, break a cycle of picking on autistic kids.
Your child will not feel weighed down from knowing they are autistic.
In fact, the opposite is highly likely. They will have been given an important access point to self understanding that will enable them to view their choices, behaviours and needs in a new context. In this context, they are not messed up, broken, less than their peers. They are neurologically different. This will likely help them to move through their childhood, teenage years and early adulthood learning how to play to their strengths and avoid some of the pitfalls that non-diagnosed people often fall into.
Your child will not be isolated and alienated from others because they wear the label autistic.
In contrast, they will gain entry to a community of autistic people. Making connections with other autistic kids and adults will help them to see that they can be just who they are and be loved and accepted and celebrated for it. They will see autistic adults who are doing just fine, who have found ways to live that work well with who they are. They will hear the voices of autistic activists who they might join with to challenge the negative stereotypes around autism. They will know that they are not alone.
In a perfect world where everyone was treated with love and respect regardless of their race, colour, ability, neurology and sexuality, maybe labels wouldn’t matter so much. Maybe we could all just be who we are without a label. We don’t yet live in that world. We live in one where being different from the majority causes challenges and conflict and even pain. Autistic adults who have not been diagnosed until later life speak of the relief of a diagnosis.
Of finding a home.
Of finally understanding themselves better.
Of learning that there are others just like them.
They reflect on what it would have been like to find out they were autistic when they were younger and they share that it would most likely have been some kind of wonderful.
If you’re worrying about the effects of your child being labelled autistic, please consider the voices of the experts on this issue. Autistic adults are your child grown and they are saying go ahead and embrace the label. Your child is likely to thank you for it.