Diagnosing eccentrics

In the old days, kids who were different were called oddballs. Now they’re more likely to be defined by a diagnosis. But some doctors say the labels hurt quirky kids more than they help.

These are kids (and more are being identified than ever) with a wide range of quirks and traits who occupy a gray zone of slippery, often overlapping diagnoses, like autistic spectrum disorder, that can leave parents frightened and confused. Kids with high IQs who can’t read facial expressions, who prefer vacuum cleaners to toys, who hate the feel of sand or wind, who have no idea how to make friends, who may suffer daily over things that come easy to others. Kids whose parents sometimes wonder: is my child a socially awkward math genius destined for greatness, or a loner destined for loneliness?

We’re too quick to label kids — but sometimes a diagnosis points toward treatment.

About Joanne


  1. I resent the whole idea that there’s some narrow range of “normal” children, and everyone that falls outside of that little bull’s-eye has to have some medical diagnosis to justify it, or else they will not be allowed in polite society. Where on Earth did we ever get the idea that people had to conform to some rigid standard and would only be excused if they were sick?

  2. Children who are different from the norm may not be ill, but they do need to be taught how to successfully socialize…otherwise, they will be victimized. Believe me.

  3. but given American society and pharmaceutical companies being what they are, I suspect that a “diagnosis” of being “weird” will more likely lead to a push to medicate the child into something approaching “normalcy,” rather than helping them develop (non-medicated) coping strategies.

    I was a *painfully* shy child (and still a shy adult). My parents’ solution was partly to let me be me, but they also did enroll me in drama classes to try to help me learn to interact more comfortably with people. I wonder if I had been born 20 years later and into a different family, if I wouldn’t have been put on Paxil or Zoloft or something like that instead.

    I worry that pathologizing human quirkiness will lead to a cookie-cutter society. And if medicating away any and all weirdness, minor emotional pain, difficulties, etc., will not lessen us as humans. (Out of pain comes art, etc., etc.).

    I’d be really offended if someone came to me now and told me I’d fit in better if I just took a little pink (or white, or whatever) pill each day.

  4. SheilaZ says:

    I have one of those “quirky” kids. I don’t mind his label one bit since it is helping us get the care he needs to have a chance to be a successful adult one day. That said, I seldom tell people his label. I usually just say that he’s a funny kid with a few issues.

    I used to be in a classroom and once thought that kids were overlabeled and overmedicated. Needless to say my position has changed a little now that this particular bird is roosting in my own home.

  5. There’s no money in ‘weird’ or ‘quirky’, but can schools get special ed money for kids with a ‘disorder’?

  6. Steve LaBonne says:

    Thank goodness for “weird”, “quirky” people. Without them we’d all be living “normal” but very short lives- in caves. The day we succeed in medicating all these personalities out of existence will be the day that sounds the death knell of the human species.

  7. Infinite diversity in infinite combination – so long as you fit society’s idea of ‘normal’. Everyone else needs to be coached or medicated into conformance.

  8. I love the weird folk. As my grandmother so lovingly put it once, “That kid’ll either end up taking over the world, or sleeping through the day as a bum.”

  9. Tom West says:

    As a parent with a child with Asperger’s, I can say the diagnosis is useful. We’re not treating it directly (nobody is making any money…), but it was a big step to understand that he wasn’t being difficult, he just could not easily accept change, had sensory preferences and sensitivities, etc. Made his life much easier as we modified our expectations to account for what he could do, and were more lenient about what he will have great trouble doing.

    I do have to say that Asperger’s is the syndrome of the day – the poor kid has been part of more research experiments than I knew existed, although he finds them fun, which is why he keeps volunteering.

    But I have to say that it’s got to be a continuum. I can see all sorts of his symptoms in my wife and myself, just much less pronounced. I am geeky, he has Asperger’s, and there is a *big* difference.

  10. Rita C. says:

    I love watching you guys get all hyperbolic ‘n stuff.

  11. You provoke a smile or two every now and then, too, Rita.

    I wonder about overdiagnosing kids, too – it may seem like a kindness to get them extra time on tests and so forth, but for some the drawback of being labeled may outweigh the advantage.

  12. Wouldn’t you just love to see a diagnosis on Albert Einstein. Talked late, kept to himself, had trouble in school and had this strange obsession with light waves and thought time did funny things that no one else could see. Probably would have sent him to a shrink, medicated him and he would have lived out his life as a second rate violin player.

  13. Rita C. says:

    Many times, a diagnoses means nothing more than some occupational therapy and some new strategies. I can see how this would bring about the end of the world, but sometimes we need to make sacrifices in order to help these children be successful.

  14. Walter Wallis says:

    RE: Einstein – Without modern diagnosis, all they could do was marry him to a couple of smart women to do his work.
    Or was that Jimmie Carter?

  15. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and had an extremely painful time with depression. Didn’t realize what it was and got treated for it until the mid ’90s. I sometimes wonder what I might have made of myself without that crushing emotional pain I thought was normal for so long.

    Perhaps for every kid who is overdiagnosed and overmedicated now, one of my contemporaries was struggling with an undiagnosed difficulty. There’s a middle ground, and it is important we find it.

  16. While my 10-year-old son is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, he has had a rather complex medical history. The doctors said he might not live. They were wrong. The doctors said he might be brain-damaged. They were wrong about that. The doctors said he would be reading-delayed. He started reading at age 4. Now they tell me that that’s hyperlexia, a common phenomenon in Asperger kids. We’re doing various things to help him with his interaction with others, but at the same time, taking things with a grain of salt on the inside that the doctors might be wrong about this too…

  17. Steve LaBonne says:

    When you see a kid who has trouble reading other people’s emotional states and having productive social interactions, you know you need to explicitly coach him on how to do these things. What value a medical diagnosis with a fancy label adds to the situation, I can’t quite see. To the kid and parents that is- the value to the people making money off the diagnosis is pretty evident.

    I love “hyperlexia”. God forbid anybody should be so abnormal as to read avidly in our electronic-media-obsessed society.

  18. JimInNOVA says:

    Hyperlexia?!?! Sounds like something a car company would come up with for its promotional materials.

    “The new Ford Mustang, now with Hyperlexia technology!”

    Honestly though, if reading young is a disease let’s see if we can find a way to make it an epidemic.

  19. I have one of those quirky kids. No label seems to fit her-she just doesn’t fit in. As a parent, it is torture. She is bullied, shunned and belittled on any given day. Every day brings a new round of tears that break my heart. Yet, she is one of the coolest people. She writes wonderful poetry and short stories, wins art contests, reads Twain for fun, and follows politics. Adult artists and musicians love her-kids will not accept her. She is called “gay” “slut” “weird” “fag” and “Goodwill Girl” (she insists on wearing long hippie dresses and skirts because she likes them) It is dreadful.

  20. Rita C. says:

    Actually, explicit coaching in social interaction for Asperger’s and other autism spectrum children has been shown in studies to be ineffective. Is there new research that shows otherwise?

    I’ve found the Asperger’s kids in my classes to be really interesting to teach.

  21. Steve LaBonne says:

    Actually, while I would not say the benefits are proven, from my reading I don’t think that what little well-designed research there is would support such a sweeping negative conclusion at this point.

  22. Tom West says:

    Hyperlexia is reading taken to an almost pathological level. i.e. it’s not necessarily what you want in your child, even if it sounds good.

    And yes, children with Asperger’s are generally much happier in the company of adults. And, in general, adults tend to like children with Asperger’s because they have interesting interests (obsessions?) and are “nice kids” (i.e. rarely mean or cruel). My own child didn’t even grasp the concept of lying until he was 8 or 9. The teachers could ask him what *really* happened when their back was turned. On the other hand, it was the truth filtered through his own understanding. (Of course, they thought he was being good, when he just couldn’t grasp the concept of knowingly relating false information.)

    Luckily (he’s in grade 5), he’s got a lot of nice kids in his grade. The teachers were good and in early grades cultivated the “mother hen” instinct of the girls in his classroom so they kept an eye out for him if he was zoning out.

    Of course, my wife and I are terrified on his behalf of junior high.

    Lastly, having the diagnosis *is* handy. It helped us notice aspects of his behaviour that we would have missed entirely, so it wasn’t just a recognition of what we already knew. It also has prepared us for problems he may have in the future that we would not necessarily have guessed.

  23. Mark Odell says:

    Tom West wrote: Of course, my wife and I are terrified on his behalf of junior high.

    I can’t urge you strongly enough to take positive action now.

  24. Mark Odell says:

    Karen, the above goes for you too :-).