Julie Green: The Other Side of the Coin


Is Autism "The New ADHD"?

More than a trendy, over-diagnosed label

Autism: Is It The New ADHD?

There are lots of stories floating around out there. You may have read about autism being touted as "the new ADHD"—over-diagnosed and curable. But as your mama probably told you, be careful what you read. 

First off, there is no "cure" for autism. Be wary-very wary–of anyone who says otherwise because they are likely trying to sell you a snake potion. Unfortunately charlatans are drawn to vulnerable populations, and special needs is about as vulnerable as it gets. We love our kids. We want to help our kids. Can they be magically healed by your new therapy? I don't think so.

Behind every person who has been miraculously cured of autism is a person who has worked very hard at incorporating adaptive behaviours over many years. You can show fewer ASD traits, but that doesn't mean you ever stop being autistic. The brain adapts to a degree, but I have yet to be convinced that it gets completely rewired. Setting parents on that path of yearning can only give them false hope. That's why the terms "cure" and "healing" tend to rub me the wrong way. They imply a deep-rooted sickness. Of course I want my son to function to the best of his ability in a broken society. But I don't for a second wish him to change his unique self, of which his autism forms an intrinsic part.

People are desperate to account for the crazy jump in incidences of autism. Some are quick to assume that autism is just the latest trendy label doctors are slapping on kids who are maybe a little quirky, a little eccentric, socially awkward or just plain introverted. But anyone who knows a thing or two about autism knows that it is more than the sum of those parts. Yes, the spike in autism is alarming. Are all diagnoses accurate? Maybe not, but assuming that clinicians are over-diagnosing is doing a great disservice to both parents and the medical profession as a whole.

Clearly those who make that assumption are a bit hazy on the process of diagnosis. It doesn't happen overnight. In our case, it took years of observation before I was finally able to voice my concerns to my son's pediatrician. That conversation is not one you want to have as a parent. By the time you end up in your doctor's office, you are usually so torn up emotionally and devastated, yet you also don't want to let your pride stand in the way of getting your boy help. The last thing you want for your child is a label. What you want are answers to the questions that have kept you up at night for months, if not years.

If you are lucky, your doctor will take your concerns seriously, at which point you will complete detailed questionnaires to see whether your child indeed meets a comprehensive list of criteria for autism. At this point, many parents will go home, reassured that their child doesn't tick all the boxes. But others will know in their gut if there is something genuinely amiss with their kid's development. Those parents will then receive a referral for assessment by a child psychiatrist/psychologist. In our case, the "assessment" consisted of a shrink trying to engage my son for about 20 minutes. Her diagnosis was scribbled out on a notepad, but it didn't sit right with me. It felt too quick, too subjective. 

So we got a second opinion. Standardized testing was carried out over the course of two days, by various professionals, all of whom specialize in autism. When the formal diagnosis came, there was no doubt in my mind that it fit. Like a glove. Are there clinicians out there who are less scrupulous about their diagnostic procedures? Probably, yet I'm sure the vast majority do not take such cases lightly. Few would be willing to stick a label on a child if they weren't absolutely convinced of its authenticity; and fewer parents still would accept that label if they knew in their heart of hearts that it didn't fit.

Autism is not a personality quirk, a passing trend, or even a "curable" disease. It's a neurological disorder. Let's not lose sight of that.
Image credit: Flickr | Eden, Janine and Jim