Labels – the good, the bad, and the ugly

Yesterday, I wrote a rebuttal to Dr Caroline Leaf’s social media post, that “Psychiatric labels lock people into mental ill-health.” In my rebuttal, I suggested that psychiatric labels don’t lock anyone into mental ill-health any more than a medical diagnosis locks people into physical ill-health.

In the feedback I received, one intelligent young lady commented that, “I understand your point completely, but I took her words differently. I have often seen people who use their diagnosis as an excuse. For example, a kid gets diagnosed with Autism or ADHD, and suddenly the parents are using that as an excuse for their bad behaviour instead of teaching and helping them to deal with it. Another example, an adult is diagnosed with something mild, but uses it as an excuse to no longer care about trying to get a job or trying to get treatment and make an effort to get better”.

I certainly understand where she’s coming from. I’ve seen it too. A diagnosis is used as an excuse for someone’s avoidance, or a tool to milk every drop of sympathy from another. Giving someone a label seems to hinder some people more than help them.

Thankfully, there’s more than one side to the label story. I wanted to use today’s post to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly side of diagnostic labels.

First, lets look at the ugly side of a diagnostic label. There will always be emotional and social connotations to every diagnosis that a person receives. Sometimes that’s sympathy, and sometimes that’s stigma. If a young woman told her friends that she had breast cancer, I’m sure that news would be met with an outpouring of care and support. If the same young woman told the same friends that she had chlamydia or genital herpes, I’d bet that most of the responses would be blaming or shaming, which is one reason why no one tells other people they’ve got chlamydia or herpes.

The same goes for mental health. The media often portrays people with mental illness as either homicidal or weak [1]. So the general response to mental health diagnoses is either fear or contempt. Even those who are neutral towards mental health often don’t understand it, so it’s difficult for those with mental health issues to receive true empathy for their plight.

Then, there is the bad side of a label. Labels can be misused, intentionally or unintentionally, for all sorts of reasons. They can also be wrongly applied. It might be that someone uses their diagnosis to draw sympathy from people, or money, or help when they don’t really need it. They might use their label as an excuse to avoid certain things they don’t like. There are innumerable ways that people can milk secondary gain from their problems.

However, appropriate diagnosis can bring many benefits. For example, correct labelling brings with it understanding and empowerment.

A diagnosis can help us understand more about ourselves, or the person with the diagnosis. That child with ADHD isn’t just being naughty, but has difficulty regulating their behaviour. That person with Asperger’s isn’t being intentionally rude, but has trouble with social cues, understanding body language, and communicating in an empathic way. A correct diagnosis also helps us understand our own strengths and weaknesses. They help us recognise what it is about ourselves that we can’t change, what we can change, and what we need to change.

Once you understand what it is you can change and what you can’t change, it empowers you to change what you can for the better, and accept and adapt to what you can’t change. You stop wasting precious strength and time fighting what you can’t change. Instead, all of the effort that would have been needlessly spent on the unchangeable can be effectively spent on improving what needs to be, and can be, changed.

In fairness, I should point out that a diagnosis isn’t always needed to make positive change. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a form of psychological therapy that encourages flexibility to accept those parts of our lives that are uncomfortable, whether they have a label or not, and allow our values to shape our life direction. Sometimes we can spend so much energy looking for a diagnosis that we stagnate, forgoing the forward momentum of what we value to focus on having a label for the symptoms.

But where a diagnosis can be made without undue effort, it can provide clarity to what often seems to be a jumbled mess of dysfunctional traits.

So, sure, sometimes labels can be used for the wrong things. That doesn’t mean they’re not useful or we should stop using them. There may be a stigma to a diagnosis of herpes or depression, but there are also good treatments available. The diagnosis may provide a way of changing a life of ongoing suffering to a life fulfilled.

More often than not, a good diagnosis helps bring clarity to a situation, enabling understanding, acceptance and empowerment. Rather than locking people in, a correct label usually unlocks a person’s potential to grow despite the problems they face.

References

  1. Corrigan, P.W. and Watson, A.C., Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry, 2002. 1(1): 16-20 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16946807

Autism Series 2013 – Part 3: The Autism “Epidemic”

Weintraub, K., Autism counts. Nature, 2011. 479(7371): 22-4.

Weintraub, K., Autism counts. Nature, 2011. 479(7371): 22-4.

It seems that autism is on the rise.  Once hidden away in institutions or just dismissed as odd, society is now faced with a condition that it is yet to come to grips with.  Some out in the community believe that it must be a toxin, or vaccines or mercury.  Others accuse doctors of simply giving in to the unreasonable demands of pushy parents to defraud the system of money – “Things have reached the point these days where any kid that’s not a charming little extrovert will be accused of being, ‘on the spectrum.’”[1]

So is there an epidemic of kids who are “not charming little extroverts”?  It depends on who you ask.

Take, for example, two articles written in the year 2000.  In the first, titled “The autism epidemic, vaccinations, and mercury”, Rimland said,

“While there are a few Flat-Earthers who insist that there is no real epidemic of autism, only an increased awareness, it is obvious to everyone else that the number of young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has risen, and continues to rise, dramatically.”[2]

The other, written by Professor Tony Attwood, a world authority on Aspergers Syndrome, said,

“… is there an epidemic of people being diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome? At present we cannot answer the question, as we are unsure of the diagnostic criteria, the upper and lower levels of expression and the borders with other conditions. Nevertheless, we are experiencing a huge increase in diagnosis but this may be the backlog of cases that have been waiting so long for an explanation.”[3]

I don’t think it’s very often Prof Attwood is lumped with ‘flat-earthers’.  But you can see the change in perspective from one side looking objectively to the other who need for there to be an “epidemic” of autism in order to strengthen their case.

So who’s right?  To see if this autism “epidemic” hypothesis has any real merit, we need to delve into some numbers.

First, some basic epidemiology – because part of the confusion in looking at the autism numbers is defining exactly what those numbers represent.  Here are some important epidemiology terms from the “Physicians Assistant Exam for Dummies”[4]:

Incidence: For any health-related condition or illness, incidence refers to the number of people who’ve newly acquired this condition.

Prevalence: Prevalence concerns the number of people who have this condition over a defined time interval.

Most autism figures are for prevalence, or often more specifically, point prevalence – “the number of people who have this condition at any given point in time.”

The other thing to remember from my last blog is that initially autism was only diagnosed on the strict rules of Kanner, and was considered to be a single disease caused mainly by bad parenting [5].  So through the 1960’s and 1970’s, only the most severe children were diagnosed as having autism because the high-functioning autism would not have met Kanners criteria, and even if they did, most parents didn’t want the label for fear of the social stigma.

So then, what are the numbers?  The early prevalence was estimated to be less than 5/10,000 or 1 in 2000[6], although in surveys done after 1987, the numbers began to rise past 7/10,000[7].  In the 1990’s, Autism prevalence climbed into the teens and the latest prevalence has been documented for autism is 20.6/10,000[7].

But that’s only about 1 in 485.  The CDC estimated a prevalence of 1 in 88 (113/10,000)[8].  Where did the other 400 people go?

This is where the importance of definitions is highlighted.  Autism is considered part of a spectrum, and at the time of the surveys reviewed by Fombonne, DSM III then DSM IV considered conditions like Pervasive Developmental Disorder and then Aspergers Disorder to be part of that spectrum.  Adding in the rate of PDD and you have a figure of 57.7/10,000 and adding in Aspergers gives you a combined rate of 63.7/10,000, or 1 in 157 people surveyed[7].

And yet even then, who you measure and how you measure makes much more of a difference, because a recent, rigorous study targeting all 7 to 12 year old children in a large South Korean populous found a prevalence of 2.64%, which is 264/10,000 or 1 child in every 38.  The authors noted that, “Two-thirds of ASD cases in the overall sample were in the mainstream school population, undiagnosed and untreated. These findings suggest that rigorous screening and comprehensive population coverage are necessary to produce more accurate ASD prevalence estimates and underscore the need for better detection, assessment, and services.”[9]

So if there has been a fifty-fold change in prevalence (from 5 to 264 cases per 10,000 people) in just thirty years, isn’t that an epidemic?

Well, no.  As much as some might ignorantly deny it, there is no real evidence for it.  Remember the definitions from the “Physicians Assistant Exam for Dummies”[4]:

Incidence: For any health-related condition or illness, incidence refers to the number of people who’ve newly acquired this condition.

Prevalence: Prevalence concerns the number of people who have this condition over a defined time interval.

It’s the rapid rise in the number of new cases diagnosed that defines an epidemic, which is the incidence and not the prevalence[10].  While the prevalence has changed a lot, the incidence has been fairly stable.  From Nature, “Christopher Gillberg, who studies child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, has been finding much the same thing since he first started counting cases of autism in the 1970s. He found a prevalence of autism of 0.7% among seven-year-old Swedish children in 1983 and 1% in 1999. ‘I’ve always felt that this hype about it being an epidemic is better explanation’, he said.”[11]

Fombonne agrees. “As it stands now, the recent upward trend in estimates of prevalence cannot be directly attributed to an increase in the incidence of the disorder.”[7]  He said later in the article that a true increase in the incidence could not be ruled out, but that the current epidemiological data which specifically studied the incidence of autism over time was not strong enough to draw conclusions.

While there’s no epidemic, there is the real issue of the genuinely increasing prevalence.  Why the rise in those numbers?  Fombonne went on to explain, “There is good evidence that changes in diagnostic criteria, diagnostic substitution, changes in the policies for special education, and the increasing availability of services are responsible for the higher prevalence figures.”[7]  Nature published a graph from the work of Professor Peter Bearman, showing that 54% of the rise in the prevalence of autism could be explained by the refining of the diagnosis, greater awareness, an increase in the parental age, and clustering of cases in certain geographic areas.

Weintraub, K., Autism counts. Nature, 2011. 479(7371): 22-4. (Adapted from King, M. and Bearman, P., Diagnostic change and the increased prevalence of autism. International Journal of Epidemiology, 2009. 38(5): 1224-34 AND King, M.D. and Bearman, P.S., Socioeconomic Status and the Increased Prevalence of Autism in California. Am Sociol Rev, 2011. 76(2): 320-46.)

Weintraub, K., Autism counts. Nature, 2011. 479(7371): 22-4. (Adapted from King, M. and Bearman, P., Diagnostic change and the increased prevalence of autism. International Journal of Epidemiology, 2009. 38(5): 1224-34 AND King, M.D. and Bearman, P.S., Socioeconomic Status and the Increased Prevalence of Autism in California. Am Sociol Rev, 2011. 76(2): 320-46.)

From Nature: “The fact that he still cannot explain 46% of the increase in autism doesn’t mean that this ‘extra’ must be caused by new environmental pollutants, Bearman says. He just hasn’t come up with a solid explanation yet. ‘There are lots of things that could be driving that in addition to the things we’ve identified,’ he says.”[11]

There is no autism epidemic, just medical science and our population realising just how common autism is as the definition becomes more refined, people become more aware, and some other biosocial factors come into play.

What can we take from the numbers?  That we’re being overtaken by Sheldon clones?  That soon there will be no more “charming little extroverts”?  If the CDC figure is accurate, then one person in every hundred is on the spectrum, so the world is hardly being overtaken by autism.  But the take home message is that Autism Spectrum Disorders are more common that we ever thought, and there are more people on the spectrum “hiding in plain sight”.  If the study from South Korea is accurate then one person in every thirty-eight is on the spectrum, but two thirds of them are undiagnosed.

Should there be more funding, more resources, or more political representation for people on the spectrum?  Perhaps, although the public and research funds are not unlimited, and other health concerns should also be treated fairly.  But since autism is life long and impacts on so many areas of mental health and education, understanding autism and managing it early could save governments billions of dollars into the future.

Rather, I think that the climbing prevalence of ASD is a clarion call for understanding and tolerance.  If we learn to tolerate differences and practice discretionary inclusion, then both the autistic and the neuro-typical can benefit from the other.  That’s a world which we’d all like to live.

REFERENCES

1. Bolt, A. If the autistic don’t get full cover, where’s the money going? 2013  2013 May 11]; Available from: http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/if_the_autistic_dont_get_full_cover_wheres_the_money_going/.

2. Rimland, B., The autism epidemic, vaccinations, and mercury. Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, 2000. 10(4): 261-6.

3. Attwood, T., The Autism Epidemic: Real or Imagined, in Autism Aspergers Digest2000, Future Horizons Inc: Arlington, TX.

4. Schoenborn, B. and Snyder, R., Physician Assistant Exam For Dummies. 2012: John Wiley & Sons.

5. Pitt, C.E. Autism Series 2013 – Part 2: The History Of Autism. 2013  [cited 2013 2013 Aug 15]; Available from: https://cedwardpitt.com/2013/08/15/autism-series-2013-part-2-the-history-of-autism/.

6. Rice, C.E., et al., Evaluating Changes in the Prevalence of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Public Health Reviews. 34(2).

7. Fombonne, E., Epidemiology of pervasive developmental disorders. Pediatric research, 2009. 65(6): 591-8.

8. Baio, J., Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders: Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 14 Sites, United States, 2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Surveillance Summaries. Volume 61, Number 3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012.

9. Kim, Y.S., et al., Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in a total population sample. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2011. 168(9): 904-12.

10. “Epidemic vs Pandemic”. 2013  [cited 2013 Sept 03]; Available from: http://www.diffen.com/difference/Epidemic_vs_Pandemic.

11. Weintraub, K., Autism counts. Nature, 2011. 479(7371): 22-4.