273. Diagnoses

It is useful to figure out why children sometimes have difficulty learning, and since most learning problems are somewhat similar to problems that have shown up before in other children, people who think about these things are apt to use labels. Labels are simply words; they don’t tell the whole story, but used wisely, they can help us to focus.
Doctors have been diagnosing for a long time, so they have lots of labels. Occasionally, a doctor attends a meeting to discuss a child’s learning difficulties, and teachers, administrators, and parents listen intently to what the doctor says, perhaps thinking, this is not a regular person like us; this is a doctor!
Many doctors have studied long and hard to enter one of the medical
professions, and many have also learned a great deal through their experiences. Their input is often helpful in schools. But they are regular people like us, and parents, teachers, and administrators have intelligence and wisdom, too. When an educator or doctor diagnoses a child’s problem, that diagnosis is a tool that can be used for thinking and communicating. Other people’s experiences with children who face similar obstacles have sometimes uncovered approaches that work. It can help to know that a child is deaf in one ear, has difficulty processing visual stimuli, or faces any of a multitude of challenges, because those challenges may have been faced successfully before, and it helps to know that, and to know how it was done.
Once a diagnosis is made, we’ve got to be careful how we use it. We tend to think of a disease or difficulty as one thing, and in some ways, it is. But a human being is many things, and however scientifically we describe symptoms, whatever diagnoses we make have to be seen only as tools, not as answers. Such an approach helps to maintain the view of a person as a person. A friend of mine,
who is an expert on some of the special needs children have, is careful to say “a child with autism” rather than “an autistic child,” because she wants to stress the humanity of the child, avoiding the dehumanizing tendency for people to see the diagnosis instead of the child.
I’m someone who has been diagnosed with a medical problem – MS. It makes it so that it’s hard for me to do some things I used to do easily. Multiple sclerosis, probably more than other diseases, affects different people in different ways. Some have lots of trouble with it, and some have very little. And people manage it in many different ways. It’s not ordinarily recognized as a learning disability, partly because it rarely strikes children, who are the most likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities. And I’m glad I’m seen mostly as “a person with multiple sclerosis,” and not as “an MS person.”

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