I I I I I I I  

What's in a Label?

Hyper, gifted, defiant, dreamer, nerd, geek.  When I was a kid, I didn't fit in, and somebody was always giving me a label to make sure I knew it.  I was the kid nobody wanted to sit next to at lunch, the one with her nose in a book and her head in the clouds.  In fourth grade I willingly gave up my recess time to sit in the library and read about Victorian etiquette and the Salem witch trials.  It was easier for me to talk to the librarian than the other kids in my class.  Let's face it, I was weird.  My husband was the same sort of child.  He was so easily distracted, two different teachers resorted to putting his desk inside a refrigerator box to keep him focused on his schoolwork, and he was bullied and teased throughout elementary school.  Even as adults, we're not exactly average, but our protective coloration has gotten better over the years. 

The labels have changed, but not the desire by teachers and students to denote the children that donít fit into the tiny box marked "normal."  Our older son, Drew has always been quirky.  He's a wonderful kid - smart and funny and creative and empathetic - but he's not really normal.  He spoke in sentences late, but once he started speaking, he rapidly became very verbal and articulate.  As a preschooler, he did lots of "sensory seeking": putting things in his mouth, playing with his food, and making messes for the tactile pleasure of squishing mud or toothpaste or paint all over his hands, and at seven, he still hasn't completely outgrown this.  When he's tired or nervous, he still sucks on his fingers and twists his hair.  His behavior is impulsive and inconsistent - he can be a very sunny, happy child, but he's very intense and feels disappointments and frustrations strongly.  If he's uninterested in something it's nearly impossible to get him to buckle down and do it, but if his interest is engaged, he becomes hyper-focused and tunes out everything else that's going on.  Most of the time he acts like other kids his age, but occasionally he does things that seem out of the ordinary.  Like all children (and adults too, really), he's a complicated mish-mash of traits, and different ones surface in different situations.

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From the time he started preschool, we've had repeated conferences with teachers, directors, and principles.  Two preschools "asked him to leave" because he "wasnít a good fit."  Some teachers complain about how unfocused he is and that he distracts the other kids, others describe him as smart and capable, although it takes some effort to focus his energy.  Each of the professionals we converse with has a tag she's eager to hang on Drew.  Spirited, high energy, hypo-sensitive, ADD, Asperger's Syndrome; everybody has a pet theory about why Drew's not like the other kids.  And invariably, they handle us with kid gloves, as if we've never guessed that Drew might by atypical.  Each teacher acts as though she's discovered something devastating about our child; something that will completely change the way we perceive him.

This is not meant to malign the educators that have worked with Drew - they've mostly been caring, tuned-in women who really want to help him.  But I wonder about our desire to pigeonhole everyone, and to pathologize even fairly innocuous aberrant behavior.  What do we hope to achieve by all of this?  Certainly I recognize that some of Drew's character traits and actions interfere with his interactions with other children, and can be disruptive, but I'm not sure what benefit there is to labeling him, rather than simply identifying the problematic behaviors and addressing them.  And whatever label is ultimately assigned to him, he'll still be my sweet boy; nothing about him will be altered by one diagnosis or another. 

So many of the "symptoms" of these disorders seem closely associated with intelligence and creativity, and I wonder what we're shaving off when we make the square pegs fit the round holes.  I was a profoundly weird kid, as was Adam.  We both, with varying levels of intervention, made it to adulthood capable of conducting relationships and interacting with people.  It's not that I don't want to offer my son all the resources at my disposal, but I'm a bit leery of the project to make everyone normal.

Last month, Drew's class was having a discussion about peace, and the kids were suggesting different ways that they could work for peace in their school and in the world.  Drew stood up and announced, "We have to accept one another's differences."  Out of the mouths of babes. . .
 About the Author:
Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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