The Value of Labels: ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism, and Other Diagnoses

The Value of Labels: ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism, and Other Diagnoses
Labels like adhd, dyslexia, autism, and other diagnoses, indicate a difference, not a defect, and having the label empowers us to know more about ourselves. They help us learn more about the weaknesses that cause us difficulties, the associated strengths we might have, and the ways we can work within our abilities to achieve all we want to achieve. They also help us find and identify others who face similar challenges so that we can connect with and learn from each other.

When I was a child,  it took a tremendous amount of time and energy to learn things that took most people less time. “I’m not that smart, so I have to work harder,” was my mantra, and ‘not smart’ aka dumb was the label I placed on myself. After all, that’s what my teachers told me. My parents often asked me, “Why can’t you be as smart as your brother?” And my classmates made me feel like the most dimly lit bulb in the bunch.

When I was 25, I was working on my PhD in inter-cultural management with a focus on China. I spoke Chinese and was working very hard to master the language and succeed in all my courses. One day while hanging out with my grad school friends, one asked me, “When were you diagnosed?”

My initial thought: What is he talking about? Diagnosed?

I asked him, and that’s when he told me about ADHD. “You must get diagnosed,” he said. “It will change your world.”

So I made the appointment and, sure enough, was diagnosed. During the meeting to review the findings, the doctor said, “It really is amazing you have been able to achieve all you have in spite of your disability. Apparently you have developed a strategy that is working for you.”

You mean there is a reason I have struggled just to be mediocre? There is a reason? I’m really not dumb? 

And with that new information,  I was empowered. I walked away from that meeting not feeling successful in spite of being dumb, I was successful in spite of a disability. Every strategy I embraced, everything I did to get me to where I was, was validated. I could now point to the new label, and it explained so many things. It also gave me a tool to find out more so that I could face down the challenges ahead with new insight. I could connect with other people who shared that label. I could learn how life affects us the same, or differently. I was no longer a “dumb” person, I had a place and I wasn’t alone.

The Power of Labels for Communication and Connection

Labels like adhd, dyslexia, autism, and other diagnoses, such as specific language impairment, and even bipolar (one attached to our intrepid CEO and publisher, Rebecca Laffar-Smith), indicate a difference, not a defect. It helps us understand our differences, so that we can identify our strengths and find accommodations to help us overcome our weaknesses. It also gives us a way to connect with other people who have similar differences, so that we know we’re not alone in being different.

Labels can be powerful tools for understanding and support. It gives people an opportunity to learn and to connect with others who face similar challenges. It also gives us a shared terminology that shortcuts explanation and a footing to ask for the help we need.

Choosing the Right Labels

Often,  negative labels  like “lazy” or “dumb” are heaped onto people who are struggling with an undiagnosed disability. I know I have done it to myself. Now, my third son, who has yet to be diagnosed with dyslexia, feels the struggles and stigma of learning differently. By placing that “label” on him, we can empower him. I want to teach him the lesson I wished I had learned before I was 25: there is a reason for our struggles. But those difficulties should not and do not define us nor transcend to all areas of our persona, either. What’s more, our weaknesses are accompanied by strengths and our label will help us identify what those strengths may be.

Those who reject labels argue that they can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy or create self-limiting beliefs. Research shows this just isn’t true. “For those who reject identifying dyslexia because it ‘labels’ children…the research is NOT on your side,” says this Facebook post from Hansberry Educational Counseling, an organization that provides teaching, mentoring and counseling to children  as well as workshops for parents. “Have you ever considered that in the absence of a scientific label, kids will label themselves as dumb?”

Source of graphic: Gibson & Kendall 2010 'Stories from School: Dyslexia and Learners' Voices on Factors Impacting Achievement' in 'Support for Learning, Vol 25, No. 4, 2010

Source of graphic: Gibson & Kendall 2010 ‘Stories from School: Dyslexia and Learners’ Voices on Factors Impacting Achievement’ in ‘Support for Learning, Vol 25, No. 4, 2010

Labels are great for communicating and connecting, but they do not define our whole being, either. Instead, diagnostic labels can be leveraged to help find the tools to help people — children and adults — who learn differently than most. By letting our labels empower us and our children, as I was able to do in my 20s when I was first diagnosed, we can gain confidence from all we were able to accomplish in spite of our diagnosis. We also gain the power to look ahead at all we can achieve and discover accommodations that will help us get there.



  • Bec J. Smith Posted March 25, 2016 1:00 am

    It’s fascinating to talk about the power of labels. I’ve found them very powerful for myself and my family too. I had a really rough time of things in high school because my Bipolar was breaking out but I didn’t know that. It was quite a few years later, when I had experienced several chaotic swings and had berating myself for not being able to be normal. I was really in quite a state about it, more than just a Bipolar depression, I was experiencing a period of dark days because I couldn’t love the person I was. Thankfully, family helped me reach out and I started seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as Bipolar Type II Rapid Cycling. Knowing that what I was going through had a name helped me not only understand what I was experiencing and how it affected my life, but also that I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t just an incompetent, lazy, pathetic… You get the idea. I had a LOT of “labels” I’d given myself over the years that were able to be replaced with the diagnosis. I could see that I wasn’t a lazy person, I just had bad days because of an imbalance of brain chemistry and that in time my cycle would spin back up again to high productivity.

    I came across some fantastic comments at Respectfully Connected from fellow adults with diagnostic labels of their own:
    One said, “I think the foremost difference is that I would have had a better sense of self-worth if I had even known as a child that I was autistic. I always knew that I was different but I didn’t know until I was an adult that it was because I was wired differently from most people – that I was, essentially, a perfectly normal autistic person. I worked really hard to understand other people but I never did. I always felt I had to hide. I was never sure that I would be loved or even liked if I let my true self show.

    Also, since I was not aware that I had sensory issues, I accepted the explanation for my irritation and overwhelm that adults often gave me: I simply had a ‘bad attitude.'”

    Another added, “Being raised to feel different, wrong and bad because of my neurology has had lifelong implications that I am only starting to unravel as an adult. I recently pursued a professional diagnosis for myself. I’ve identified as Autistic for awhile now, but because of the way I was raised, had so much self doubt that I felt my diagnosis would only be “real” if given by an allistic professional.

    I will say that having labels and names that describe my neurology, that give reasons to explain why I am the way I am, has been an incredibly liberating and wonderful experience. I knew I was Autistic, but to receive other diagnoses that explained parts of me that I didn’t even know were there has been amazing. I feel like a new, reborn person in a way. A lifetime of feeling bad and wrong has been erased with the gift of a diagnosis. It’s amazing and wonderful to know that there are others out there like me.”

    And this really does seem to be a very common feeling among those of us with a diagnostic label. Rather than pigeon-holing us, or causing us to feel like we can’t achieve in life, that we’re “damaged” or “disabled” it gives us an opportunity to understand ourselves. In a way, having the opportunity to acknowledge our limitations and appreciate the traits that make us different gives us a sense of belonging. We are freed from the negative sense of self and begin to see ourselves differently, more clearly. We begin to be able to live into the best versions of ourselves that we can be.

  • John Arkan Posted June 15, 2016 8:54 pm

    My Son Anand is diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, A label we first thought was negative . He is a wonderful human with “different abilities ” We understand that , he does as well

    • Bec J. Smith Posted June 16, 2016 11:55 am

      I know how hard it can be to accept the label initially. It’s heartbreaking to think of the challenges our children will face because of their diagnosis; but they’d be facing them with our without the label. The label gives us the power to advocate for their rights, find a community that understands, and give ourselves and others a shorthand to understanding our situation. It really can be powerful. But it is definitely still a case of needing to understand their individual strengths and weaknesses because yes, our children are differently abled. 🙂

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