Thursday, October 4, 2007

Late Bloomers, Loners and Sensitive Types

When was the last time you heard one of those expressions used? These words from my childhood seem to have disappeared from the language and been replaced by various medical terms. Jitterbugs, handfuls and dreamers have all been replaced by ADHD cases. Rowdy kids who talk back now have oppositional defiant disorder. One reads about three year olds being diagnosed with social functioning levels equal to 1 year and 8 months. What outstanding accuracy! How precisely we have come to understand human development. The path that leads to (presumably homogeneous) adulthood has been drawn so narrowly that any child who does not march straight down the statistical center is plastered with labels.

In my son's class last year, the teacher confided that there were three kids with diagnoses and five more that needed to have diagnoses, but hadn't got them yet. That is to say that eight out of thirty (about a quarter) of the kids had pathological developmental disorders. I went on field trips with these kids, and I can assure you that none of them seemed any different from the kids I went to school with. Some were goofy, some were quiet and some you had to keep your eye on -- in other words, it was a group of thirty children.

In a meeting with some people from the PTA and the Vice Principal, we discussed "gray area" kids. I'd never heard of the problem before, but everyone was very worried about it. It seems that about 30% of the kids would not actually qualify for diagnosis under today's standards, and yet are failing to keep up academically and socially. The horror! No matter which way I crunched the numbers, the truth was inescapable -- nearly half the kids were bellow average! Whatever are we going to do?

Please excuse the rant. And, no, the next thing I say is not going to be, "All these kids need is a good old fashioned spanking." What set me writing about this was all the brouhaha over the fact that Jenny McCarthey's son, who was not developing typically when he was two (he was having epileptic seizures) was developing more typically at the ripe old age of four. We are told that, in that two year span, the young gentleman had autism and then was cured from it. How exciting.

Diagnostic labels have their uses. They help get access to services. They can predispose some people to acceptance and accommodation, instead of judgment. In some cases they can be useful in terms of giving an indication of what sort of help is likely to be useful. But these sorts of labels also present problems. First, unlike the folk-labels in the title of this post, they narrow the boundaries of what we are willing to consider as natural variation. What was once considered acceptable and even welcomed in the general community tends to be seen as something that, being pathological, requires correction. It also takes away our confidence in our children's ability to work things out as a natural part of growing up.

Recently, at a support group for parents of autistic kids I mentioned how MK still did not speak in proper sentences at age six. A parent asked me how he went from being non-verbal to his current verbal state. My answer was that he was never non-verbal, he just didn't know how to talk, and that this had changed as he learned how to talk. Of course we did what we could to help, but the bottom line is that, as a natural part of growing up, he has got better at things that were difficult for him earlier on. Kids do that.

It's very nice when a late bloomer does well but, by calling it a miraculous cure, we raise the stress levels for all the other kids who are taking their time. It's a good thing for loners to get some support in making friends, if they want it, but do we have to tell them they have a disorder before we are willing to help out? Likewise, sensitive types will benefit just as much from activities that promote sensory integration, such as swinging, swimming and bouncing on a trampoline, whether we refer to it as therapy or just getting out there.

We've come a long way from the days when intervention was limited to curt demands that kids snap out of it and quit acting up. Hopefully, as we move forward, we can drop the notion that everything that benefits from help and understanding first has to be considered pathological.

14 comments:

Club 166 said...

Great post.

I initially was reluctant to have our son "labeled", until I realized that without the label he wasn't going to get the support he needed. Even with the label he almost got suspended from Kindergarten.

Grinker describes in "Unstrange Minds" how some different countries and cultures consider autistic kids as just kids that need to be supported, and don't necessarily label them. He also describes how sometimes rural communities are more accepting of individual differences, and find a place for the person.

But the reality in the US in this century seems to be that everyone must have a label.

Joe

VAB said...

Odd that you should mention that, because I grew up in a farming community and the society that I was thinking back to was, in fact, a rural one.

kristen said...

I loved this post. Thank you. It's unfortunate that the labels are the only thing that open the door to services. In the end, they are just words on paper. They aren't living, breathing children. We always want everything to be placed in a box and tied with a string. But some things don't fit in the box.

Joeymom said...

We are in the middle of this fight right now- not with my Joey, but with Andy. Andy has sensory integration disorder. In non-medical terms, he's sensitive to some things to the point that it is disrupting his ability to participate in a group. In some ways, it is a label that helps us understand how to help. In other ways, it has excluded him from school. What to do?

Blog, I suppose. :P

Bev said...

Excellent post. I was a "late bloomer" and a "wallflower".

LIVSPARENTS said...

I oft grapple with whether we would have had the same attitude with Grace had Liv not been more severely autistic (better said in a hypothetical not autistic)? Would we just have considered her 'quirky', laughing at her cute way of echoing TV shows and us. I'm wondering with regards to PDD-NOS to use a term, whether this therapy 'trip' is really necessary or, with the proper attention and educational 'tweeking', (admittedly probably remarkably like therapy anyway) whether Grace would turn out 'normal'... or at least as abnormal as 20-50% of population out there...

Niksmom said...

Another wonderful and thought provoking post. I often wonder when Nik seems to have these significant leaps forward —how much of it is simply the passage of time and his own natural pace. Yes, he needs lots of supports and seems to thrive with them, but he also has done remarkably well in some ares with NO supports.

Angelo said...

Thank you for this post. With our son, we are just beginning the long struggle -- and we are often puzzled by the need of institutions (hospitals schools etc.) to label him and to draw assumptions over what he will be able or not able to do, based on the labels they stick on him.
Ok, Enrico doesn't talk at three. He plays in repetitive, elementary ways, he is scared of unknown people, he does not socialize with other kids. We know these *are* problems. But as soon as he's been labeled as an autistic kid, people started to assume he couldn't have a real affective relationship, or show curiosity for the world, or learn things fast and well, or enjoy a hug and a kiss, etc. -- and that's not only untrue, but precludes a real comprehension of his character.

Dant said...

Hi, I'm new here but liked your post. I've looked at the book jacket for Jenny McCarthy's book and been seriously turned off by it. I don't believe that autism is something that can necessarily be "cured" if we as parents just fight hard enough. At some point acceptance has to creep in. My 15 year old autistic son has made great gains (in my eyes) but remains autistic. I chalk most of it up to growing up. Just like with a "normal" kid. And I really squirm when life with an autistic child is portrayed as a living hell. My son's a great, joyful kid and at this point there's less drama with him than with his "normal" sister. Anyway, nice post.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

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