LABEL: (Noun) description . identification . designation . epithet . mark . tag . category

LABEL: (Noun) description, identification, designation, epithet, tag, mark

The word label is a simple one, but it has a wide array of applications— among them record labels, warning labels, food labels, social labels—and it is this last example that I have chosen to focus on in this week’s post. In a society, a label makes a telling impact. You may recall reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in which Hester Prynne of Salem Village was doomed to wear a label, a scarlet A on her bosom, to identify her as an adulterer. Whatever else Hester was as a person, that letter, placed there by the leaders of the community, obscured her true self and defined who she was–at least, in their eyes.

We no longer put letters on people’s bosoms, but we still hang label on them like name tags, whether it be based on gender, color, socioeconomic level, education, country of origin, or a myriad of other ways of our choosing. Do we need these labels at all? One label that a significant number of individuals in our society have had placed on them is autism. Medical practitioners and researchers speak of “the autism spectrum” with its varying degrees of identifiable symptoms that take in a broad sweep of individuals. The labeling causes them to be looked at in a particular way, but do we really know what we are looking at?

I am currently reading two books (I do that sometimes) that have made me think more deeply about the labels we attach to individuals with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. The Reason I Jump is a fascinating little book penned by a 13-year-old Japanese youngster, Naoki Higashida. Naoki is unable to speak; he uses an alphabet grid to communicate and to let others into his world to “see” how he thinks and feels, and how he responds to the world around him. His book has one-page answers to questions such as “Why do people with autism speak so loudly and weirdly?” and “Why don’t you make eye contact with people when you’re talking?” These are characteristics of autistic behavior, and Naoki gives answers from the depth of his own feelings to help others see beyond the label. “Why do you jump?” is another of the questions he answers. He explains, “When I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky.” An onlooker may see a young boy jumping and leaping into the air, but they may never realize that there is a freeing, liberating purpose to this aspect of his life. Reading Naoki’s explanation of what goes on inside both his mind and body is an education that can help his readers go beyond the sterile label.

In Be Different, John Elder Robinson, an Aspergian, in plain, frank language makes his readers aware of the discrepancies between what they see and hear from him as an an Aspie and what is really going on in his inner world. He helps the reader to understand his inability to see and feel things the way Nypicals (his word for “normal” people) do. Very early in life, he found school a dismal place where he wore badly the label that was placed on him. But he had no way of letting the world (the Nypicals) know what was in his head and heart. He learned how to manage his disabilities and is now a successful businessman, despite the fact that he is still an Aspie. Now people are seeing beyond the label.

When I wrote a blog called “Anomaly,” in which I used the phrase “people with autism,” I heard from the director of the autism center in our city, stating that the term was unacceptable to people on the autism spectrum. He suggested that I use “autistic individuals” instead. But the editor of my book Mr. Michael: Journeying with My Special Son had corrected my phrase “autistic children” and substituted “children with autism,” so I was conscious of how I used the label, but I could see that we had a labeling solution in search of a problem. By the way, we are discouraged from saying that someone is “suffering from autism” or that the family is “suffering because of the autism problem.” The point is, there is no disease involved here.

Labeling is something we do without even thinking, but instead of labeling, we should affirm the good in one another. Created in God’s image, we have gifts crafted for our individual personalities and use. Let’s discard the labels and embrace the gifts.




“It takes a village to raise a child.
It takes a child with autism
To raise the consciousness of the village.”

Coach Elaine Hall