There was an article on the front page of the New York Times recently that tapped into a part of the big business that has engulfed disability. This one is about how the drug companies and hysteria have combined to create an epidemic of ADHD diagnoses to, I believe, the great detriment of the young people being so rashly labeled, their families and, quite frankly, the individuals who are struggling with legitimate, serious symptoms of ADHD, their families and the rest of us who are trying to help them.
And it’s not just ADHD.
Ramped up concerns about Autism and Autism Spectrum disorders (ASD’s) are also off the charts.
These things start out because of legitimate concerns parents have about their children. In the middle part of the 20th century these concerns promoted an identification of serious disorders affecting a small percentage of children. In their first few years the children became withdrawn, began exhibiting abnormal, sometimes violent and self-injurious behaviors, failed to develop along expected paths, all of which seriously hampered their chances of having positive outcomes with their lives. Parents naturally panicked. Who wouldn’t? The panic increased as it became more and more evident that there would be no quick, simple, straight forward answers as to what was happening and why. The only thing scarier than knowing is not knowing. Those fears prompted some parents with financial and educational resources, and the time to marshal those resources to mount substantive campaigns to try to answer those questions.
There has been significant progress in helping children with serious ASD and their families but there has also been a hysteria created around these disorders. Desperate parents have rushed to doctors and other professionals when their children exhibit challenging behaviors and characteristics. Money has flowed. Professionals followed the money and, predictably, huge industries have emerged.
Nobody disputes that ASD, ADHD and other developmental anomalies can be devastating in serious incidences. And in less debilitating situations there have been tremendous benefits from an early understanding of behaviors that might make one’s life more difficult and some strategies that might help down the road, educationally and socially.
However, the pendulum never quite stops where you want it to. I believe in certain ways it has swung too far. And not just in the over medication of children and adults with too much energy, too little focus, nasty tempers, rowdiness, laziness, more interest in the trees than the surrounding forest. Or in the tremendous attention, resources and, quite frankly, hysteria, that has risen up over the Autism and ASD epidemic. These are the most obvious examples but really, over the past thirty to forty years we have been in a labeling frenzy.
Shy children end up with selective mutism. Boisterous kids end up on medications that sap their energy and creativity. Slower learners are pushed and so get more nervous and self-conscious and so are pushed some more and so the inevitable self-fulfillment syndrome is triggered and takes on a life of its own.
We’re all very different but despite the lip service we pay to individuality in our medias we are still very much bound by group conformity. If you’re different, even temporarily, it is better if you are put into a group of “those people” who are also different in similar ways. Contradictory huh? But that’s the way we are. You’re either us or you’re part of some other them.
Most of the kidsI have known, including myself, at one time or another could easily have been pegged as having one kind of problem or another. Adults too, though that usually sticks in childhood and stays with you from then on. Much of the time, thankfully, these periods pass, nobody overreacts, and the children are allowed to work through their bumps and detours. If they get an immediate label and/or diagnosis then that becomes a part of their stigma and, consequently begins to be a factor in shaping their behaviors and outcomes. I fear we’re doing that more and more and that now big business is a motivating factor.
It’s not an easy thing to measure. I would be just as cautious about pulling that pendulum back too far in the other direction and losing some of the hard fought gains made for those who really need them.
The downsides of a self-perpetuating growth in these industries though have serious consequences for individuals pulled in who would do fine and even better to not have specials attentions paid to them or, even worse, medications pumped into them. And it would be better for those individuals and their families who are struggling with the more serious manifestations of these disorders and are already underserved. For, we have seen time and time again, no matter how big and rich health care and social services industries get they are never fully equally distributed across the spectrum of need but are weighted toward those who are better positioned to secure those services. Again, that’s just the way things are.
What are needed are more services, supports and attention for those who need them, not more people in the pool. That will happen naturally still for the foreseeable future without any ramping up of the rhetoric. Scratch the surface of any subtle hype along those lines and you’ll find the ol’ profit bugaboo Ulterior Motive, and that we don’t need in this field.