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What's in a Label?

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Labels are everywhere. They describe our ethnicity, religious affiliation, career, and sometimes, a medical condition. They can be good or bad; they can make us proud or ashamed.

A label can define you in a positive way, or it can help describe your challenges. One blind gentleman joked: "I'm good at a lot of things; seeing with my eyes just isn't one of them." Someone with ADHD might say, "I'm very creative but also very impulsive and easily distracted." Someone with Asperger's might say, "I'm a great detail person, but social skills and seeing things from another's viewpoint can trip me up."

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Society has come to understand certain labels. When we say someone has ADHD, we understand the person can be impulsive, forgetful, inattentive, hyperactive and easily distracted. Those are hallmarks of the condition. When we say someone has Asperger's, we know the person has problems with social interaction and relationships.

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Labels can be bad. They stigmatize; they can put people in boxes - and people don't fit in boxes. But labels can also bring freedom, community and understanding. Being African American, or Presbyterian, or lesbian, one can identify with others in that community. Having a label like Asperger's or ADHD can help to explain ones challenges and strengths. For example, Tara Kimberley Torme explains in her speech about Asperger's: "I discovered that I had a Neurological Disorder that set me apart from other people. What a relief, I was one of thousands and not alone and things started to make sense to me." Nomi Kaim puts it this way: "As I learned more about Asperger's and was able to draw parallels between what I was learning and my life, I eventually came to terms with it and was relieved to finally understand many aspects of my life that had baffled me up to that point." (The Story, American Public Media, Feb 10 2010).

I had a similar experience when I first came across Nonverbal Learning Disability on the Internet in 1998. It was as if I was reading about myself. For the first time in my life, my challenges and failures, my strengths and successes began to make sense. But unlike Nomi and Tara, when I mention that I have NLD, instead of understanding, I get blank stares, because most haven't heard of the condition.

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Yvona Fast is an author, freelance writer, food columnist, editor, researcher and speaker. Her first book is a career guide for individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning disability. She is currently working on her second book, My (more...)

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