My Love/Hate Relationship with Labels

By Audrey Perrott

I’m not a fan of labels. Never have been. If it’s cute and comfortable, I’ll wear it. I couldn’t tell you what brand it is because I don’t want to be defined by one … or many. So, when my freshman roommate asked if I was, “You know, normal,” because it was super important to her that I be obsessed with Tommy Hilfiger, I replied, “Well, how does one really define ‘normal’?” I’m pretty sure that response answered her question.

When I finally got pregnant after years of trying, I remember earnestly saying that no matter what, as long as our child was happy, kind, funny, honest, and true to himself, my life would be complete.

Fast forward to when our son was nine months old. He could identify pages in a book, what would happen next, and point to words. By 14 months he knew the alphabet (forwards and backwards) and began alphabetizing his flashcards. By 16 months he was reciting books we had returned to the library six weeks prior. He could also count to 100. It sounds like I’m making it up, but I promise, I have the videos to prove it.

He was our first, and we kept repeating the mantra to ourselves that “every kid is different” while doing our best not to compare ours to our friend’s kids. But it was hard not to. As bright as he was, there were obvious delays on the other side. His temper tantrums were epic. He would get “stuck” on topics, schedules, and routines. The run-of-the-mill checklist you find on most autism sites hit almost all of the marks.

Even though I avoided labels like the plague, I don’t believe we were in denial. We spent four years in therapists’ offices, evaluations, and assessments trying to get answers, looking for ways to help our son be the very best version of himself amid his gifts and his challenges. When we finally received the official Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, it was almost a relief.

The label has helped us receive a scholarship to help us pay for the ridiculous number of therapies, and it has also helped us explain more accurately to family and friends who may have a hard time understanding our day-to-day challenges. Even still, I find myself having a very hard time saying it out loud. Because, as much as it is a relief, it comes with a heavy weight of reality of how others will see him because of it.

In fact, I called myself out on it the other day to my husband.

Me: “I realized I don’t like to say S is autistic. I always say, well, he’s on the spectrum, but he’s very high-functioning. Or, his mind just works differently than other kids his age. Or, he’s extremely bright and has a few quirks because of it.”

Can you tell I used to work in PR?

Joking aside, the fact is that I don’t want people to know him as his label(s). I want them to know him for things like his remarkable reading ability. (Seriously, he’s seven years old and read Frankenstein in 45 minutes.)  For his quick wit and razor-sharp comprehension of topics well beyond his years. For his wise insight and his ability to empathize with others — a trait that we all should practice more. For his killer dance moves that light up the floor and the faces of all those around him when the music takes him over.

That’s what I see, and that’s what I want everyone else to see, too. Otherwise, they are going to miss out on one seriously amazing kid — a kid that is happy, kind, funny, honest (boy, is he honest), and true to himself — in other words, just the kid I always wanted.

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