Truth in labeling

While changing planes at Washington Dulles I picked up a discarded Washington Post and read its particularly good Health section. I found the article Gifted? Autistic? Or Just Quirky? about the labeling of children to be quite thought provoking:

Increasing numbers of children are given increasingly specific labels, ranging from psychiatric and neurological diagnoses such as Asperger’s and attention-deficit disorder to educational descriptors including “gifted” and “learning disabled.” And parents who in the past might have fought ferociously against giving their children labels — particularly for once-stigmatized conditions such as learning disorders — sometimes actually seek such diagnoses for their children to get them extra time on tests, to receive insurance reimbursement for treatment, to qualify for extra educational services or simply to have a name (and treatment) for a problem.

The article then discusses the pros and cons of labeling. My attitude toward labeling is largely negative, but situation-dependent. Here are some problems:

  • Diagnoses are often wrong and the conditions themselves frequently ill-defined and overlapping
  • Labels tend to stick even after a child grows out of whatever they had
  • Labeling authorizes discrimination –positive and negative
  • Labeling can provide a handy excuse for lazy parents, teachers and caregivers who don’t bother to understand a labeled child’s individuality
  • Labeling ‘medicalizes’ non-medical conditions, such as what we used to call “boyhood”

Sometimes a label is good, though

  • When drug or behavioral therapy is appropriate. (Although the definition of “appropriate” needs its own post)
  • When it’s helpful for a child to understand him or herself or for a parent to give advice to a teacher on how to work with a kid

Parents can sometimes feel forced by their school into having their kids tested and labeled. In many cases it’s worth the trouble to resist that pressure. I also worry that if enough kids get labeled it puts the unlabeled at a disadvantage: they don’t get extra time on tests, and they get a smaller piece of the fixed pie of educational resources.

Plus, as they say in the Incredibles, ‘If everyone’s special, no one is.’

February 28, 2007

5 thoughts on “Truth in labeling”

  1. The big problem now with labeling is that the labels are typically descriptive findings rather than disease entities. As an example, “attention deficit disorder” often is accompanied by many other psychiatric findings such as oppositionalism and anxiety. Conditions such as “attention deficit disorder” will turn out to be findings characteristic of many gene mutations.

    Once we get to the point of defining such specific genetic mutations, labeling will be much more helpful, telling us what triggers to avoid, what treatment to use, and when to expect problems.

    I expect a lot of such progress to be made within a decade.

  2. On the other hand, labeling can be very helpful for getting a school to understand that a child’s difficulties aren’t ‘bad parenting’. I only wish my oldest son hadn’t had to go through several years of school misery first. Once we had a label, even an incorrect one, to put in his school paperwork, the school quit trying to blame his home life and started trying to *help* him. It takes a label to get the funds, unfortunately.

  3. Pingback: Rerun: Truth in labeling | Health Blog
  4. I agree that labeling is needed to a certain extent since it ensures that the school and the children around the affected child can readily understand any special needs…however, as stated, labeling can be overdone and create unwanted boundaries…one of those Catch-22 situations.

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