Autism: The Popular Disorder

Reports of autism cases per 1,000 children gre...

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Autism is considered by some to be a “popular” disorder: The theory goes that there are parents who like labelling their child Autistic, because it is a cool diagnosis, or a handy excuse for bad parenting. In support of these substandard parents, there are “professionals” who grant the diagnosis, despite the condition not being present in that individual, or not being an actual condition at all. These professionals of course get paid – everyone wins. These theories explain the huge increase in diagnoses over the past couple of decades. It is therefore not an epidemic of Autism, but an epidemic of the current trend to give a label to any and every problem a child may have, and conspiring dodgy money-hungry doctors.

I’ll give you a second to digest that.

Some of it looks right doesn’t it, let’s break it down: Autism has been on the increase… hasn’t it? Well diagnoses have been increasing, but that doesn’t mean Autism frequency has actually been increasing. It is an indication of an increased awareness and understanding of the condition. I have no doubt there is some over-diagnosis going on – I’ve suspected it myself in a couple of children. But what is also happening is under-diagnosis. Under-diagnosis is occurring because of the sort of issues I faced with my son – shame and self-blame that drives parents to not seek help. I have also heard and seen instances of complete denial – where people have tried to desperately tell the parents that their child has classic Autism but the parents refuse to accept or do anything about it.

OK, so the increase in Autism numbers is not so straight-forward, let’s move on to it being a cool diagnosis then. It’s cool right – Rain Man, Mercury Rising, hell even Einstein, awesomely talented and interesting people, who wouldn’t want their son (and it is usually boys) to be like that! Actually, only a small percentage of Autistic people are savants (about 0.5% to 10%), with special gifts that let them astound you with their counting, memory or musical talents. And even if that was a guaranteed aspect of the diagnosis, would you really want all the accompanying behavioural, social and language issues? Anyone who has ever met a child with Autism, wouldn’t wish the condition on anyone. I love my son but I do not love his Autism.

Well Autism is at least a handy label for parents who don’t want to take responsibility for what their bad parenting has lead to, right? I don’t know how this one even gets off the ground, yet it is very popular. How can bad parenting impact a child from birth, so that they don’t learn to point? How can the parenting be so appalling that a child can’t talk – even abused and neglected kiddies pick that skill up along the way, how severe must the abuse be by parents of Autistic kids! Yes Autistic children tantrum more than neurotypical kids, but look at what they tantrum over: A car was nudged in a line -up of twenty cars, or someone said the a word they don’t like (such as “proud” – see A Friend Like Henry), or there’s a button on their shirt.. how are these evidence of ill-disciplined or spoilt kids?

I am sympathetic to some of the concerns that lead people to call Autism a popular disorder, especially the current trend to put a label on any problem a parent has with a  child (some favourites are Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified). But it is important to judge each case on its merits, not dismiss every child and their parent because of a label they probably wished had never heard of, and would do anything to change.

[Edit: Here are two interesting and relevant news stories about the “bad parenting” connection to ADHD and ODD ]

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2 Responses to Autism: The Popular Disorder

  1. KDL says:

    PDD-NOS is considered part of the autism spectrum. Our daughter’s initial diagnosis was high functioning autism. We are told that now she “looks like” PDD-NOS and if her language ever catches up she will “look like” Aspergers. I like to think of the differences as the numbers of developmental arenas that are affected. For classic autism there are four (language, social, sensory and perseverative behaviors); for PDD-NOS there are usually three out of those four, any of the areas might be normative while the others are delayed – our daughter dropped her perseverative behaviors pretty early; for Aspergers there are usually two (social and sensory).

    • I’m aware that PDD-NOS is considered part of the spectrum of autism, as opposed to “classic autism”. I didn’t mean to imply that PDD-NOS, ADHD or ODD are all false disorders, I only listed them as examples people frequently use to support the argument that these days there is a label for everything. There are a growing number of disorder names to cover conditions that used to be considered mere personality differences. As to whether each label is valid, used correctly in each instance, that is (as I said) something that needs to be judged on a person-by-person basis, rather than dismissing every child (and their parents) because of the label. Sorry that this didn’t come across in the post – no offence intended at all.

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