Disorder or Difference?

Difficulties in certain aspects of functioning – learning, mental, emotional, and/or physical – are generally referred to as “disabilities.”   I prefer to reframe that notion.   We are all unique individuals who possess a variety of strengths, weaknesses, and quirks.  Our different traits may hinder the ability to function in certain capacities, but these are behaviors, not necessarily reflective of an individual’s true disposition.

As adults we accept the strengths and weaknesses of other adults.  We are generally aware of our own shortcomings and tend to steer clear of careers in areas where we do not excel (if we are not especially proficient in math, we are not likely to pursue accounting).   Yet, we do not extend the same expectations to our children, who tend to be judged on how well they grasp (or don’t) academic concepts within certain time frames, or whether or not they are able to comprehend and follow adult directions.  The words that children and parents dread hearing is,  “something is wrong with that child.”

We all want what is best for our own children, as well as others’ children, for the betterment of society.  Yet, we frequently place more emphasis on how our children fare academically, and what they are doing “wrong,” rather than trying to balance their individual delays or weaknesses with their innate strengths.

Our society has become quick to label the child who has a high energy level or the inability to grasp an academic subject by a certain chronological benchmark, as possessing a learning, emotional or mental disability.   The U.S. Surgeon General has estimated that one in five children have a mental or emotional disorder.

There are individuals who truly have learning, emotional, and mental problems caused by a variety of origins or circumstances.   At one end of the spectrum are mental and physical disabilities related to biochemical or genetic differences and those resulting from an accident during birth or later in childhood. Other causes found to impair learning include socioeconomic issues, dietary factors, and environmental allergens. Rounding out the opposite end of the continuum are the learning disorders that seem to have no medical basis, except that the child is not able to keep up academically with his or her peers. Frequently, this growing population of children are being diagnosed with severe psychopathologies simply because they learn or adapt in a manner that differs from the norm.

There are a number of disorders that are frequently assigned because the diagnostic criteria sort of match the child’s behaviors. In many cases, the disorders are already accepted for adult populations, but are extrapolated to include children. Popular media educate us about these disorders, while parents and teachers grasp onto them in efforts to make sense of why children struggle in school. The diagnoses of choice include Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Asperger’s Syndrome, Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), and Bipolar Disorder, to name only a few.

There is also a burgeoning field of “entrepreneurial disorders” developed and encouraged by both professionals and parent advocates. While many of these labels frequently draw symptoms from actual disorders, other behaviors are added into the mix and new syndromes are born. These up-and-coming popular diseases seem to serve no purpose other than to create more “alphabet disordered” children, while profiting off parents desperate for answers and “cures.”

Deciding whether to seek a diagnosis for your child is very much an individual decision, that should be undertaken after research and consultation with medical and mental health professionals.  Many children, especially those with developmental and physical differences, do benefit greatly from early identification and treatment, however, there is a large population of children whose differences might not reach”disability” proportions if they were allowed to mature at an individual pace with respect, and generous doses of patience from the adults who direct their lives.

 – Lenore Colacion Hayes, M.S.

This article was published in the Gazette Newspapers (Long Beach, CA); November 23, 2006.