by Tina Olesen
Much effort may be expended by parents or educators in an attempt to get a diagnosis for a child who is struggling in school. A diagnosis may be used to determine how to treat the child, and it is often required by the government as proof before tax dollars will be released to provide supports, such as an aide or assistant. A diagnosis may lead to a child being identified or designated in a special needs funding category. The categories have labels: Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Mental Illness, etc. These labels can get transferred to the child; e.g. “He’s autistic.” What’s the purpose of these labels, beyond getting funding from the government? What can happen to a child’s identity when he is identified in this way?
There are many reasons for the increased push for diagnoses, and one reason is the mounting pressure on public school teachers, who may be asked to cope with large classes without sufficient support. Separate classrooms or schools for students with special needs are becoming uncommon. Often a child who has special needs will participate in a regular classroom in their neighborhood school, and financial support is supposed to be provided through government funding. Specialized equipment can be very costly. Caseloads for special education teachers in public schools may be heavy. There may be long waiting lists for services like speech therapy or physiotherapy. Educational assistants might only be employed part time, and there may be a shortage of support staff in a school. Teachers attempting to advocate for more help for their students are required to make a strong case that support is needed, because budgets are tight. If parents refuse to have their child labelled, they may be refused access to government funded support.
How is a diagnosis made? Conditions like Down’s syndrome are generally diagnosed at birth. But what about something like Attention Deficit Disorder? An article in Maclean’s magazine (click here to read) blew the whistle on the manual that many clinicians use to diagnose mental disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a manual produced by the American Psychiatric Association. A task force comes together to categorise symptoms into disorders. It has come under fire for making the categories so broad that virtually anyone could potentially be labelled with a mental disorder; and the definitions of these disorders may change in successive versions of the manual. The first version of such a manual published in 1917 described 22 diagnoses; the latest version has approximately 297 disorders. A diagnosis can also lead to a patient being placed on drugs. The Mclean’s article states that 70 per cent of the authors of the DSM-5 have declared ties to drug companies. So, while a diagnosis may release dollars from the state, it also may generate dollars for pharmacies.
Diagnosing a child with a disorder can be like re-naming that child. “He’s attention deficit.” Children will often identify themselves with the label that has been assigned to them. I overheard one of my former students introduce himself to a visitor by saying, “I’m A.D.D.!” That is a statement of identity. He then went on to say, “So if I have a meltdown, that’s why.” If the child accepts this as his identity, it can color his thinking about his capability, responsibility, and accountability.
Labels can lead to prejudgments. In The Miracle Worker, Anne Sullivan’s character emphatically guards against the danger of this, in reference to her student, Helen Keller: “I treat her like a seeing child because I ask her to see, I expect her to see…” We must not allow labels to dictate to us how we will treat a child.
As a Christian teacher, my responsibility is to get the mind of Christ about the child. Regardless of what label has been placed upon her by man, she is created in God’s image and precious to Jesus. My response to her must come out of my own relationship with Christ and His interest in the child, not out of any reaction I may have to her man-made label.
Jesus Christ is no respecter of labels. He came and identified Himself with us, taking upon Himself human flesh, and experienced our human condition first hand. He got down in the trenches with us! He invites us to be identified with Him, and He promises to write upon us His new name (see Rev. 2:17 and 3:12).
We need not be identified with this or that label or take our identity from it. In Christ, we have a new identity. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me,” (Gal. 2:20). Identification with Jesus Christ is glorious! “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” (Songs 2:16) becomes our place of acceptance and belonging, and our song of victory.
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