Thomas Sowell

When Billy's mother sees her 12-year-old son's popularity with team mates on his baseball team, she thinks back to predictions made when he was a pre-schooler that he would have so much trouble making friends that, among other things, he would probably never be able to get married and have children.

It is a little early for Billy to be getting married, but the predictions have been off by miles so far. Why were such dire predictions made in the first place?

Billy was late in beginning to talk and was supposed to have been autistic. Once that label had been put on him, nothing could change the minds of those who saw him that way.

Contrary evidence from his emotional attachment to a little girl in his pre-school was dismissed, even though the two of them were inseparable on the playground -- and even though an inability to form emotional attachments is at the heart of autism.

There is another kind of dogmatism from people who are not going to give up on the "autism" label. That is redefining the word to include a wide range of children who are said to be on the autism "spectrum." Billy's mother raised a fundamental question that seems to have eluded many professionals: Would you say that someone who is near-sighted is on the "blindness spectrum"?

What would we gain by such manipulations of words? And what would we lose?

Blindness, like autism, is a major tragedy. When some little toddler doesn't see quite as well as other kids, and may need glasses, what would be the point of alarming his parents by saying that he is on the blindness spectrum?

In the decade that has passed since I organized a support group of parents of late-talking children in September 1993, I have heard from literally hundreds of parents of such children, many of them re-living the anguish they went through when their children were diagnosed as autistic.

With the passage of time, it has become obvious that many of these children are not autistic, any more than Billy is autistic. Parents who are grateful that the hasty diagnoses their children received were wrong are also bitter that such labels were applied so irresponsibly -- often by people who never set foot in a medical school or received any comparable training that would qualify them to diagnose autism. But professionals have been wrong as well.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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