Why Labels Matter

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My wife once asked why I cared about getting a formal Asperger’s diagnosis and why I felt the need to label myself accordingly. She said that labels can be problematic. Children are frequently tagged as something (Asperger’s / ASD, ADHD, high anxiety, or whatever), and are then treated differently to help them “cope”. But treating them differently often causes trouble. Just watch Parenthood and you’ll know what she means.

In the TV show, a child named Max is diagnosed with Asperger’s. His parents subsequently use that as an excuse to shelter the ever loving daylights out of this poor, fictional child. They do things like go around town asking families to use electric lights instead of candles in their Halloween jack-o’-lanterns because he’s afraid of candles ā€” rather than helping him actually cope with the real world (because candles happen). Do I get why they would do that? Sure. Do I think it’s actually helping Max learn how to function independently? Absolutely not.

Anyway. My point is that my wife legitimately argues that labels can be harmful. People have a tendency to assume what you’ll do based on those labels, rather than reacting to what you actually do. This is self limiting, and it prevents individuals from actually dealing with their challenges. So why do I get defensive when she asks my why I care about officially having an Asperger’s / ASD diagnosis?

I think there are a couple reasons. Labels can be validating (i.e. I now understand why I am the way I am), and they can be incredibly valuable when used properly.

For my whole life, I’ve been “awkward”. I take a little too long to understand jokes, usually misread whether my boss is actually going for a high five, and can’t make sustained eye contact without getting headaches (…I’ll stop there, rather than going on for a couple hours about what makes me awkward). This has resulted in significant anxiety throughout my life. I would beat myself up trying to understand why I don’t just “get it”. I mean there are only a couple options ā€” handshake, high five, or fist bump. This shouldn’t be that hard, right?

But it is. Because I’m wired to make sure that it is, and knowing that has given me peace of mind. It doesn’t mean that social situations are any less stressful, but now I don’t double dip my anxiety. Instead of perseverating on both the awkwardness of an encounter and my frustration with myself for making it so awkward, I can now focus on just the former. Plus, it’s made it easier for me to embrace the awkwardness. It’s a part of my identity, and people seem to respect me more if I just own that.

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Understanding the root cause also makes it easier to improve in the ways I want to improve. It’s not that I want to dramatically change my personality. I’m happy being who I am and the way I am. But I wouldn’t mind reducing my anxiety levels by one or two or twenty times.

There’s a significant amount of research into autism and Asperger’s, especially around how to deal with our particular challenges. Knowing that the research exists and applies to me has helped me find the tools I need to be a happier person.


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