In the not-too-distant past, there was little understanding, or help, for most troublesome children. If discipline couldn’t correct them, they were often written off as “slow,” “stupid,” or “bad.” Even Thomas Edison, who would become the 20th century’s most famous inventor, was labeled “addled” by his teacher because of his problems in school. With no other options available to her, his mother educated him herself at home. Today, we are fortunate as parents and professionals to have much more information about how to help children who are developing more slowly than their peers. Children (and their parents) are less often blamed and shamed for their disabilities and differences. Naturally, parents are still worried if their child is diagnosed with a developmental delay or difference, but a diagnosis can also make it possible to identify what kind of help or services their child may need along the way to become more successful. If children need accommodations in school or special services compensated through health insurance, a diagnosis code is absolutely essential.
But the new information and understanding that a diagnosis gives can also have a downside. A diagnosis, after all, is still a label that identifies a deficit, rather than a difference.
What concerns me is when I notice how easily a diagnosis can become a self-limiting burden, or even an identity of disability. For instance, I have often heard a child casually tell me, “You know I’m ADHD, right?” Or they will describe themselves to me as “I’m Aspergers” or “I’m Dyslexic.”
From my perspective, every child and every person is facing their own particular challenges in life. Some of those challenges may be obvious and lend themselves to a diagnosis, such as a speech impediment or weak physical coordination. Other challenges are more invisible, such as wondering if the other kids like you or the feeling of never being as good as your older sister. Regardless of what kind of a challenge a child is facing, they will handle it better when they also have the opportunity to develop their courage and confidence.
I recognize that any parent raising a child with special needs is already doing a tremendous amount of work, and I’m not trying to add to your burden. What I’d like to offer, though, are some suggestions about how to think about your child as a whole person, one who may have some extra-challenges, but a child who can also be encouraged to :
• Remind yourself that your child is a person, not a diagnosis. Be as careful and precise as you can with your language, saying “Mary has some extra-challenges with sensory issues,” rather than using the short-hand “Mary is a “Sensory Integration kid.” Keep your picture of who your child is and where she fits into your family to include other descriptions as well: “She has a wicked sense of humor!” and “She’s always the first to notice when the dog’s water bowl is empty."
• Any child with a diagnosis isn’t really all that different from other children in my view. In the big picture, every child needs to learn how to be a part of the family, and how to get along with other kids. Every child needs to learn how to handle frustration or disappointment without melting down, and how to make mistakes and then try again. Every child has to figure out how to grow up and get along in the world. Some children take longer to learn these things than others, but every child can learn these eventually.
• It has been my experience that children with all types of disabilities are acutely aware of the burden they place on their parents. Therefore, children with all types of special needs need even more opportunities to develop their abilities and to be able to contribute in a meaningful way as a valuable member of the family and member of the classroom. A child in a wheel-chair can put the napkins on the table and a child with Aspergers can learn how to cook French Toast for the family on Saturday morning. Given the opportunity, every child “blooms” when they are given the training, encouragement, and opportunities not just to overcome their challenges, but also to contribute to others.