The problem with diagnosis

I recently read about a mother whose three-year-old son has just been diagnosed with autism. She had no idea, she thought he was a normal boy who had tantrums and could be shy or sometimes a bit rude. To me that sounds like a lot of three-year-olds and I’m surprised it got as far as a medical diagnosis. Is this a good thing because the child and mother will now get support? Or have we detrimentally labelled a boy who has only just started his life?

Our understanding of mental health and developmental conditions has changed so much in the last few decades. When my mother was growing up, she was considered shy. If she was growing up today, she might be diagnosed with Asperger’s. I don’t think the lack of an official medical diagnosis has damaged her, she’s a happily married woman with friends and hobbies. If she had grown up with the autistic ‘label’, would it have changed her perception of what was possible and deterred her from her achievements?

Go back a hundred years or more and many men and women were locked up for misunderstood conditions and ‘illnesses’ which simply didn’t exist. The act of applying a medical label to a person could be incredibly damaging. Now, the damage is mainly to our perception of ourselves and the way other people think of us and treat us. We wouldn’t expect to be sent to an asylum just for having Asperger’s or being depressed. Instead we could start considering ourselves outsiders, failures, genetically flawed, emotionally or socially incompetent… did I miss anything?

Maybe I’m being ungenerous. Maybe it is more helpful to give a name to what we are so that we can talk about it and understand it as something that can be managed and supported. But I still think of that little boy and the others like him who are being defined at an incredibly young age. Will they understand what the doctors are saying? Will they be able to see beyond the black and white limitations defined in the medical textbooks?

What do you think?

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