The Mislabeled Child

The Mislabeled Child

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Updated on Mar 5, 2009

In the past  25 years, the number of children labeled as "learning disabled" has jumped by over 150 percent. Nearly one in ten children meets the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. And prescriptions for powerful behavior-controlling pills like anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and stimulants are doled out to patients as young as 2 years old.

So what gives? Has the number of special needs kids in the general population skyrocketed? Or are doctors over-diagnosing children at an alarming rate? "It's a huge combination of issues," says Brock Eide, M.D., M.A., a leading learning specialist and physician who, with his wife, Fernette Eide, M.D., penned the book The Mislabeled Child (Hyperion). The two doctors run the Eide Neurolearning Clinic in Edmonds, Washington, which specializes in the evaluation and care of children with school and learning challenges. "When we talk to veteran teachers and those who've worked with kids for a long time, it's hard to escape the conclusion that they're seeing different behaviors than they did a generation ago. The rise in learning disabilities isn't just someone's fantasy, but it's difficult to get to the root causes."

There are lots of theories out there. Environmental causes. Too many preservatives in our food. Early overuse of electronics and television. "A large number of kids we see with autism spectrum disorder had difficulties around birth or early life," Brock Eide says. "In earlier days, they might not have made it, but with modern medicine being what it is, they do." Another possible contributor to special needs? Parenting. "We call it No Deprivation Syndrome," Brock Eide says. "These are kids with parents who never set limits and so they are less prepared for the structured setting of school than other children are."

That often leads to a label like "attention deficit disorder" or "hyperactive." Strangely, teachers are the first individuals to suggest an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in nearly 60 percent of cases, although they are not trained to do so. And even when doctors slap on the ADHD label, over half do it without ever having formally tested the child's attention capabilities. "There's an excessive tendency to apply biological and psychological labels rather than view them as challenges kids face growing up – challenges like self-discipline, self-control, or a variance in learning style, information processing, or how individual children learn best," Brock Eide says.

Fernette Eide agrees. "In the medical community," she says, "we're looking for what's wrong and what the problems are. We look at the struggles and advise on a plan of next steps. But children are a complex mix of things. Medical practices aren't set up to look for what's going well. And yet, our feeling is that a lot of how the brain works is that it corrects itself. It compensates. And so it's often true that striking gifts sit next to disability. You don't often have to look far to see the positives next to the negatives."

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