Jumping to Labels

We live in a world overrun by labels. Everything and everyone has to fit in someplace. There is little room for unique. There is little room for the standout. My third son is a standout.

Third Son did not speak. At all. By the age of two.

His father and I weren’t overly concerned. His brothers were not early talkers. Our second son was almost three before anybody could understand a word that came out of his mouth. Plus, Fourth Son was just born. Another reason for Third Son to quietly step back.

We did a little research on the causes of delayed speech. We asked his pediatricians and our friends for advice. On their recommendations, we called in the evaluators. Just to see whether he required some speech therapy to get him over the hump.

The evaluator saw a clear-cut speech deficit. She found Third Son to be quite social. He pointed with a purpose. Became frustrated when he couldn’t get his point across. He laughed at simple, visual jokes and communicated without words with her.

From our perspective, Third Son was quite appropriate and affectionate. He didn’t regularly answer to his name, but you could whisper the word “chocolate” from across the house, and he’d come running. He interacted with other children. He learned to play video games and sports to relate to his older brothers. He was demonstrative with those who knew him. Friendly to those who connected with him. A nurturer.

Optimistically, we jumped head first into speech therapy. Four times a week. With the amazingly energetic and patient K. She jumped through hoops to get Third Son to work with her when he was significantly more interested in watching The Wiggles. After countless cartwheels, K won him over.

While Third Son did make gradual progress, he continued his struggle to develop language skills. When he entered a nursery school program four months after his third birthday, his teachers jumped to the obvious conclusion. Third Son was autistic. Severely autistic.

We educated ourselves on the subject of autism. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder. It is broadly defined as a neurological disorder that usually appears during the first three years of life. It affects developing brain areas controlling language, the way that people socialize and relate to others, and abstract thought. Yes. Third Son had minimal language skills. The red flag for his nursery school teachers. We did not believe that Third Son met a majority of criteria necessary to place him on the autism spectrum.

Go beyond the label when it comes to special needsA few weeks into the school year, the self-designated neurological professionals also known as nursery school teachers called us in to discuss our child’s future. We had to have a plan. He’d soon be four years old. They questioned the size of his head. They listed all of his language and social deficits, from his strangely unique ability to do 74-piece puzzles at his young age to his refusal to communicate with the teachers in the room to his unwillingness to sit during circle time. “Is he hyperlexic?” the head nursery school teacher asked us.

We told the teachers that they were jumping to conclusions. We were afraid to classify him – or to pigeonhole him – until professionals fully analyzed him. What we saw was a language disability that affected his classroom behavior. In response, the head teacher stated, “I hate to say it, but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.”

Third Son was not a duck. And we were not first-time parents, blindly accepting a preschool teacher’s “diagnosis.” Despite their claims that we were in denial, we knew better. We knew our child.

Still, we were not doctors, and we were concerned about whether we were doing everything possible to help Third Son. We wanted to get to the root of his disability so that we could properly attack the problem. We wanted to make sure that everyone around Third Son was targeting the appropriate issues. Not jumping to an easy conclusion. Labeling him. Without investigating what made him tick. So started the endless trips to the countless neurologists, psychologists, speech therapists, and behaviorists.

Tens of thousands of dollars later, our suspicions were confirmed. Third Son had a severe language disorder. A language processing disorder. In fact, one of the noted psychologists with whom we spent over 15 hours pointed out that many children with Third Son’s disorder are naively labeled as autistic. It’s an easy, thoughtless conclusion for those who don’t want to be bothered to delve deeper. Or truly make a difference in a child’s life.

Today, Third Son is a sweet, friendly, intelligent, and intuitive six-year-old with a severe language processing disorder and dyslexia. Years of one-on-one speech therapy with dedicated, wonderful therapists have made it possible for him to have a conversation. The right reading tutor and program helped him learn to accommodate for his reading weaknesses. By pinpointing his problems rather than simply labeling him, he was able to thrive.

Labels are exceptionally helpful when you need to identify things. Food items, restaurants, toys, computers. Confining a child to a label without fully understanding his biological and neurological makeup is destructive.

Go beyond the label. Examine what’s inside. And listen to your instincts. Make a difference.

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