We live our lives surrounded by labels. We see them in supermarkets, in advertisements, and we even use them subconsciously throughout the day. However, we never stop to realize the dangers of using labels… especially as they apply to people.
On Monday morning, July 23, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC asserted that alleged Colorado shooter, James Holmes is probably on the autism spectrum AND that autism would explain why he “was disconnected” from the mass murders. As a father of a son with Asperger’s, the greater disabilities community was particularly offended by Scarborough’s inaccurate label. He weighed in on the tragic event claiming that Autism is a “mental illness” rather than a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and compromised his credibility in the process. Within hours, an online petition (with thousands of signatures) was demanding that MSNBC and Scarborough: “Retract his statements about autism and the Colorado shooting” was trending in Twitter-verse and the world of Social Media. The firestorm in which Scarborough now finds himself, also engulfed Dear Abby back in 2008 when she also mislabeled Autism as “mental illness” in one of her responses to a reader.
The passionate reactions of self-advocates and families of people with autism is understandable. The history of autism in psychiatry, and particularly in psychoanalysis where Autism was once attributed to bad parenting, is atrocious.
However, there is much bigger issue. Lost in the debate on “accurate labeling” raging between psychiatric disorders and neuro-developmental disorders is the traumatic legacy of blame, guilt and self-doubt suffered based entirely on “being different.” The same stigma that keeps people with mental illness from seeking treatment encourages bullying of kids with specials needs and continues the legacy of alienation for people with mental health issue and people with disabilities. Let us keep in mind the primary purpose of a label should be medical diagnosis. The only “appropriate labels” are those that HELP people get appropriate treatments and therapies to improve, protect and enrich lives.