Autism: Does the label matter?A study reported on in the New York Times on Thursday found that proposed revisions to the American Psychiatric Association’s definition would exclude about three-quarters of those now diagnosed with milder forms of autism called Asperger’s syndrome or “pervasive developmental disorder” or PDD-NOS. The concern over labeling a student with autism is a common one in our office.
As special education and disability attorneys, our role is to advocate for our clients to receive much needed services from the school, the insurance company or other agencies. While special educators will tell you that they don’t base services solely on a student’s diagnosis, and that needs rather than label drive services, there are situations where this isn’t true.
Receiving a diagnosis of Asperger’s, PDD-NOS, and autism can in fact be a ticket to entry for services. In this era of increasingly scarce resources this diagnosis can be the ” ticket ” into educational programs and services that might not otherwise be available. While rarely is a parent glad about the diagnosis, many are keenly aware that this bad news may be both the protection and justification for more services.
There are many reasons for this phenomenon. In the field of special education the category of autism is not neutral. Certain assumptions are made about deficits and services are attached. For example, the automatic presumption that a student with autism requires a certain level and set of services drives the desire to get a label to assure that the child is getting all the interventions they need. Parents are concerned that without the label their child will be denied needed educational interventions. The fact is, decisions about educational supports are driven by categories of disability. In the scramble to secure educational services it is likely that there will be increasing pressure to be identified with a diagnosis that will help ensure that help will be available.