Follow Your Inner Moonlight, Don't Hide the Madness (artwork by Molly Child)

Labeling Children: the Ignored Truth

A few years ago I had a chat with my yoga instructor. She was complaining about her son, age 11. “Why can’t he just do as he’s told?” she sighed. “My daughter is much easier, she just listens to me. And I can’t remember being this difficult when I was younger. I think we need to get him help.” I cringed. Her experience echoed my own childhood and the adults that kept getting angry at my frequent defiance of rules.

Hey, I get it – I was a handful. 

I didn’t do my homework and frequently forgot my books at home. I skipped classes more often than not. I spent long hours behind my computer (ah, the sweet dawn of MSN). I got into conflicts both with other students and with teachers, especially if I deemed something unfair. I was the textbook difficult teen.

But I got lucky. My luck took the shape of my teacher in classic languages and our class mentor, mr. Veenman. It’s not that he didn’t care about my behavior… rather, he didn’t try to mold me into something I wasn’t. He patiently let me do things my way, as long as my grades were decent. So what if I got into arguments with our Latin teacher, Chemistry teacher, Dutch teacher, Geography teacher? So what if I didn’t care about subordination a single bit, blatantly ignored school rules and would forget my own head if it wasn’t attached to my body? As far as he was concerned – I didn’t have to conform, as long as I was a good kid. And for some reason, with him I always felt like I was.

But most kids don’t have a champion like my former teacher. Either they get in serious trouble at school, leading to a whole array of issues, starting with low grades and ranging to addiction or self-harm. Or, a more popular solution these days, they get a label. In the name of helping them. As psychologist Rachel Wise acknowledges: “In order to provide anybody with services, whether it is a child in school, an adult that is getting psychological counseling services, or a child who is receiving behavioral support in the community, funding will not be provided by the government or insurance unless that child has a documented diagnosis or label. So essentially, labels are used to obtain services.” In short – we claim we use labels because we want to help children. But is that really what’s going on?

Who Really Benefits From Labels?

There are plenty of issues with the use of labels. For one, they’re rather arbitrary. Researcher Vicki Gibbs and colleagues at Autism Spectrum Australia used DSM-IV and DSM-5, two versions of the main diagnostic guide for psychologists, to assess 132 children referred to their diagnostic team. Thirty-four of the children received a DSM-IV diagnosis of PDD-NOS, but only half of these met criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM-5. Which raises the question: how much value should we attribute to a label if this label can lose its value from one day to the next, simply because of the methods used?

Then there’s matter of generalization. The labels are such broad categories, blending vastly different people into one group, and simultaneously leading to stigmas and beliefs about said group that only apply to a small part of it.

Both of these problems have been addressed over and over again. But one problem is all too often overlooked, and it’s this one: whom do labels really help?

If a child (or adult for that matter) suffers from crying spells and contemplates suicide, they are in pain. Assuming they get an appropriate diagnose they can get the right help and feel better. The diagnose (or label) serves a clear purpose: to help the child.

But it’s different when a child doesn’t care about smalltalk and often engages in discussions with the teacher. Has their own interpretations for assignments. Prefers chatting with friends to repetitive and boring schoolwork.

We conclude the child has issues.

But in truth, if we’re being 100% honest, the child doesn’t have issues. It’s us that have issues. With the child.

So we try to mold the child into something that suits us better. As bad cops – through poor grades or disciplinary measures when the kid doesn’t do what we want it to. And as good cops – through medication, therapy and extra support, all of which require… a label.

Not All Labels Are Equal

Two labels are extremely prevalent here: ADHD and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I want to place a disclaimer here that both labels are also used for children who genuinely suffer from their issues. Unfortunately, they’re also used as our way of saying: “Here’s the reason we can’t deal with this kid, something is wrong with them.”

In fact, psychologist Rachel Wise states: “It is much easier to say that a child has autism spectrum disorder than to say that they communicate and socialize differently than their peers.” Read that again. The child’s communication isn’t inherently wrong, it’s merely different. Yet we label it a disorder. A negative deviation from what we consider to be right.

But one might ask – and I hope you do – whether ADHD and ASD are truly disorders. If a child doesn’t stick with something they are no longer interested in, are they being flaky, or authentic? If a child is always honest and their conversation partner can’t handle that honesty, who is the one with the issue, really?

And wouldn’t it be better if instead of labeling our divergent kids as ‘disordered’ we would simply acknowledge that they are different, much like we all are?

Our Society Isn’t Ready

Of course, this is a simplified view. The truth is that children will one day grow up and have to live within a society and interact with others. A society where they will depend on said others for their employment (thus means of survival), friendships or romance, even safety. And they will need to find a way to make others more comfortable with their atypical minds.

As long as society isn’t comfortable with brains that work in a different way (ironically despite all the job ads looking for people who think ‘outside of the box’), we’ll need to keep teaching our neurodivergent kids “coping” mechanisms, so that they too will get a fair shot at being a keg in the larger mechanism.

It’s not a question of whether it’s fair. It’s just life.

But I believe change starts with acknowledging what’s really going on. So let’s stop calling atypical mindsets disorders if it’s not the children who suffer. Let’s tell our kids the truth: “There’s nothing wrong with you. We just can’t cope with the way you think. So let’s work on a toolbox for you so that you can be your own brilliant self, without the world getting in your way.”