Why Do We Label?

Recently, I read an article that challenged its readers to rethink the way we view diagnoses such as autism. Traditionally, autism has been described as a brain development disorder or delay. However, especially in recent years, we have seen an increasing number of individuals advocate for autism to be embraced in the context of “neurodiversity,” which is to say that just because there may be differences between human brain developments, it does not mean that they are abnormal or “less” than another. We would look at autism as an example of the diversity of our general population.

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This got me thinking, why do we label? Certainly, labels shape our perceptions of others; labels serve as a lens through which we see the person. There is much discussion among families, educators, researchers about the value of labeling.

I remember early on, in the 90s, I made a point of saying at the beginning of Ryan’s many school meetings: “Yes, Ryan has autism, but I am not allowing my expectations for him to be lowered because he has this diagnosis.”

On the other side, however, Ryan’s neurological disorder impacts the way he thinks and behaves. It is essential to recognize that fact so that specific adaptations can be made. For Ryan, labeling provided him with eligibility for services which allow him to get the support he needs to be successful.  It was not until 1993 that the federal government recognized autism as a formal diagnosis eligible for services.

Still, I think that this article illustrates an important need for us to always be mindful of how often – and why – we choose to assign labels to groups or to individuals. Is it truly for their benefit, or is it perhaps to provide the labeler with a certain level of comfort in being able to classify? One of the more popular mottos of autism remains: “Different, not less” – it could not be more appropriate!

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