A reader writes:
I enjoy the Dish immensely and rarely find myself in a position of vehement dissent, or find a post just hurtful and shallow. But the one on Dan Ariely's research hit a nerve. He did near-anecdotal research finding that we feel like big jerks if we discover we've laughed at a person with a legitimate disability. We even try to see the good in them when we realize they're overcoming an obstacle. Then he extrapolates to say that this encourages us to embrace labels so that we can offload blame.
As a parent of a son who has had extreme difficulties with schoolwork and getting along with peers since he was in preschool, I have felt the hurt and the stigma when the other parents judged him as a "weird kid" and me as a "bad parent". My son has shouldered the "blame" for his behavior since he was three, and I have shouldered the "blame" for my bad, bad parenting - parenting that somehow doesn't seem to have the same effect on my other two kids. I have listened to endless streams of criticism and inane advice from people who are pretty sure they know how to solve his problems, if only I were a good enough parent to listen.
Finally, after reading every book, trying a new (expensive) school, therapy, and medication, we have an Autism Spectrum diagnosis.
The behavior is no more socially acceptable than it was before, and we still have the long, hard road of helping this child become a happy, functioning adult. The difference is now we can get the right help, read the right books, address the right issues, and, quite frankly, ignore a lot of stupid blame and advice from people who aren't fighting the same battles.
The label doesn't make the road any easier, but it does help us pick the right path. And I just don't have time for the people who need to place blame on a child or a parent, or imagine that a diagnosis is an easy out.
Ariely appears to conclude that disorders like ADHD are manufactured so parents can blame the disorder rather than themselves or their child. I assume he would lump Asperger's (an autism spectrum disorder) in with his "medical label" theory. As someone with ADHD and Asperger's whose children have ADHD, Asperger's, and sensory processing issues, it frustrates me when people with no experience or expertise (like Ariely, Bill Maher, Arianna Huffington, Dennis O'Leary, and Michael Savage) intimate that these conditions are somehow fabricated or exaggerated, and if parents only did X or Y, their kids would behave better.
While it is fair to debate whether these "labels" are disorders or merely differences, it is conclusive that individuals with these diagnoses differ physiologically and genetically from so-called "normal" people. Kids with ADHD are not simply "energetic," and kids with Asperger's are not merely "a little odd." Only someone who never parented a child with these conditions could think this.
Like me, children with these conditions used to grow up without the benefit of labels to explain their socially incorrect behavior. And like me, many were physically punished or ostracized, yet the behavior inexplicably persisted. In my experience, parents more often blame the child, rather than their parenting (especially if they also have a "good" child as a comparator).
It is other people who blame the parents. For decades after autistic behaviors were assigned a medical label, mothers were blamed for not bonding with their children correctly, so I do not see how Ariely concludes that the labels serve to relieve parents of guilt. Further, is he implying that parents of these children are guilty of something? Maybe he agrees with Savage, who said autism is the result of parents failing to punish their "brats."
When I learned my kids had Asperger's, a friend said, "I'm sorry." I pointed out that my sons' behaviors and my concerns predated the label. The label did not change who they are; it only changed how I interact with them and how I teach them to interact with the world. Without the label, I don't know if I would have ever figured them out. It was like someone gave me a key to understanding them and myself.
Ariely's attitude about these behavioral conditions reminds me of how people used to view depression: as something people could just "snap out of" if they so desired. Today, most people (save the Scientologists) accept that severe depression is a true medical condition. Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome have also gained acceptance as real disorders. I look forward to the day when people no longer question the validity of Asperger's, ADHD, OCD, and other behavioral conditions with physiological causes.