Red flag alert: the phrase “medical diagnosis”

Here is a tip for parents when it comes to Autism Spectrum Disorder and the education of your child: your personal red flag should go up if you hear an educational professional at a meeting, on the phone, or in writing use the term “medical diagnosis” when it comes to your student. For example, “I understand your child has a medical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Why is this unprofessional behavior? Because there is no other kind of diagnosis. However, the use of this term implies there is another sort. And, many parents come away with the impression that since this term was used, there is some sort of educational diagnosis. There isn’t. It is possible, however, for a child sans an ASD diagnosis to qualify for services under the label ASD on an Individualized Educational Plan, or IEP. Confused yet? You aren’t alone. This is very confusing for most people. The fact is, educational professionals in the state of Florida can find a student eligible for services if certain criteria are met, even if they don’t have ASD. How is this so? You can read all about it here:

Best practices on the part of professionals is to use correct lingo in dealing with diagnoses and labels. ASD, when it comes to education, is an exceptionality on an IEP. It isn’t a diagnosis. When it comes to a clinical diagnosis, reviewing the following is helpful and informative:

While educational professionals will “consider” your child’s diagnosis in determining eligibility for services, that is all they must do. This can be very shocking to parents. It is very possible to have a child who does have Autism not to qualify for services at school for that ASD. However, if the term “medical diagnosis” comes up, we suggest parents gently halt the meeting and remind the personnel present that there is no other kind; and that, in order to meet best practice standards in both paperwork and conversation, when referring to the student’s ASD, “diagnosis” be the term used. “Medical” is redundant and misleading. If the educational “eligibility” is being discussed, that is the term which should be used.

In my former role as CARD Coordinator for the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities I (unfortunately) witnessed parents being told by educators that the educational professionals are better able to tell if their child has ASD than the doctors. This is simply untrue. Just because a doctor sees a child for an appointment and not every day at school doesn’t mean that person has not been trained to a professional level in diagnostics. Teachers aren’t diagnosticians any more than speech language pathologists, program specialists, placement specialists, or behaviorists are. The doctors who diagnose individuals with ASD are the people qualified to do so. They are the experts who have spent years in school specifically to be licensed to diagnose. Teachers, on the other hand, spend their years in school learning to do that, and becoming qualified to certify to teach! The educators are the people qualified to teach–not to tell you if your student is, or is not, living with Autism.

At UCF CARD, I had to spend hours explaining to parents that they didn’t have a child who was diagnosed with ASD by the school system. This was a sad waste of taxpayer dollars doing damage control. Simply because of the use of the term “medical diagnosis” at an IEP table, parents made the erroneous assumption that there is an “educational diagnosis”–even though that term wasn’t used. This led to hours of explanation on the part of CARD Coordinators, costly problem-solving discussions with staff at clinical meetings, and sometimes even to parents thinking–for clinical purposes such as insurance eligibility and SSDI qualification–that their child had ASD based on the evaluation by the school system. Heartbreaking in some cases, as well as costly.

For clarity, it is always best to be as specific as possible, and language does matter. A diagnosis is a diagnosis is a diagnosis. ASD is lifelong at present. Just because your student doesn’t qualify for an educational label doesn’t mean s/he isn’t on the Spectrum. The more you know, the better. Keep yourself informed through the state DOE using the above link.

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