On “Labelling*” (An Autistic Perspective)

In general, “labelling” a person with a mental health condition tends to be met with disdain. Therapists especially tend to encourage not focusing on labels but on behaviors and symptoms. However, I have tended to argue that I believe it’s not that simple, that behaviors and symptoms are surface problems that don’t allow for a deeper understanding of what is causing them. For this, we need a so-called “label” (at least for this autistic brain).

First, it is paramount that I clarify that I am usually meaning diagnosis where others sometimes hear this a presumably negative label, a judgement of some sort. Also, it explains differences in thinking and conceptualizing that are applicable to many interpersonal interactions. In other words, this is actually very critical to understand if you want to get along with various people. Perhaps most significantly, as many mental health problems are caused by psychiatric conditions with a strong genetic component, it seems reckless to not attain an appropriate diagnosis and share it with those close to you genetically. 

A diagnosis is:

  • clinical, not moral
  • starting point not ending point
  • provides clarity
  • helps one to accept one’s own condition. 
  • allows for quick communication of a generally accepted definition. The more specific the diagnosis, the more that is communicated. 

I need the screwdriver. 

I need the small screwdriver. 

I need the the small hex screwdriver. 

Diagnosis is not meant to vilify anyone. Our society does this. We do not have to. I do not. I believe all mental health diagnoses should be viewed as objectively as physical diagnoses, without moral judgement. 

As our society is not accepting of many mental health diagnoses, it’s understandable they should not be broadcast beyond family without careful contemplation. And, even within the family, it may not be necessary or wise, depending on circumstance. But, for some people, getting a diagnosis is a great relief. It’s also a way to ask for understanding and help from those around them. 

Serious mental illness or psychological conditions require care and understanding by those closest to the one diagnosed, or the problems will only become worse over time. One might consider the analogy of having limitations of mobility and expecting people to understand this is a result of a symptom from a diagnosis of a condition and not because the person is just choosing to “behave” in a certain way, to “act” like they have trouble with some physical activity when they may literally have a degenerative condition.

There is another potential downside. Putting a “label” on yourself can become a burden or a crutch, leaving you expecting more from others than is realistic. But, how do you know what is realistic? People probably go to both extremes, some expecting (and potentially getting) more help than they actually need and some expecting (and potentially getting) less help than they actually need. To add even more confusing, a diagnosis does not mean that a person will feel and behave and need exactly the same every moment of every day.

This increases misunderstanding those with both physical and mental health conditions. It is an ongoing struggle for them and those around them. Communication and patience are key to making sure everyone gets treated appropriately and fairly. This is where a good therapist is invaluable.

Do I like labels? If a label is a diagnosis, then yes, and only if they are the starting point for helping everyone understand the situation better and never to use to judge someone for having a diagnosable condition.

As the eminent autism expert Dr. Tony Attwood is fond of saying, with regard to autism, but applicable to anyone, “this is a discovery, not a diagnosis.” It’s too bad everyone doesn’t see it that way. Maybe we can all try to get to that place.

*In the spirit of avoiding confusion, the word “labelling” can also be spelled “labeling,” and the reasons for this are a bit complicated grammatically. 

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3 responses to “On “Labelling*” (An Autistic Perspective)”

  1. I could not have said it better myself! I love what you have done with your website so far, and you have inspired me to include other stuff that I didn’t think of adding yet to my new autism website. I love your website so far, and keep up the great work! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I look forward to seeing more from you.


  2. […] my “On Labelling” post, I explained why I thought it would be good if one considers a label to be a diagnosis. Isn’t more […]


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