The pitfalls of kitchen diagnoses

Photograp of a remarkably triangular hole in grey stone, filled with water, reflecting trees and sky ©careerusinterruptus

Mr Pixel got diagnosed again this week. Twice.

I’ve lost track of how many times he’s been diagnosed, largely because I’ve never paid anyone to do it.

Instead all his diagnoses have come gratis, courtesy of friends and acquaintances, in parks, school, living rooms, and kitchens. Some people have spent up to ten minutes chatting with my son; some didn’t talk to him at all. They just looked.

None of them are, you know, qualified. In lieu of degrees and professional specialisation, they have their own quirky kids – and often indeed, their own quirks – and what they diagnose is invariably behaviour they recognise.

That’s not entirely unreasonable. After all, it’s usually behaviour that catches the parent’s eye, and in the first instance that’s what we’d describe to a professional. But the professional delves deeper, looking for patterns. These patterns don’t depend on one presenting trait. They are found through testing: dozens of questions, carefully analysed through the lens of statistics and the specialist’s years of training and experience.

Please note: I am NOT saying that specialists always get it right. Of course they don’t; they have their own biases and blind spots, just like the rest of us. In my experience specialists tend to have the same problem as the bloke with the hammer: they’re excellent at finding nails, and if the issue lacks a flat top, and also happens to have wings, well heck. They’ll ignore those fiddly details and bash away anyhow. Even so, I tend to think they’re more likely to get it right than Playground Mom.

Because besides the sheer amount of time they’ll spend figuring out your kid, the reason you need an expert – someone who does precisely this, all day, every day, for years – is that a bunch of different conditions can cause behaviour that, on the face of it, looks the same.

As one friend put it, “Gifted + anxiety looks like an awful lot of stuff. Add trauma and it’s anyone’s guess what’s really going on.”

Mr Pixel ticks all three of those boxes (gifted, anxiety, trauma) but – and this is key – you wouldn’t know that unless you were thoroughly versed in his entire history, had read lots about each specific thing he’s been through, and you’d spent enormous amounts of time shifting the puzzle pieces about, trying to get a clear picture. And you were really, really, strongly invested in helping him understand himself. Like if you were, say, his Mum.

Like his Mum has, in fact, done, for the past eight years, ever since a kindy teacher commented on his rearrangement of two coloured blocks in a wall. Mr Pixel – who at that age wanted to be a policeman because he loved the lights and the checks – just thought it looked better, but she saw it as “very mathematical” and thus, “quirky”, adding, “Not enough to get a diagnosis, mind.” And this was before the trauma kicked in, before there was anything remotely concerning, or confusing, to me.

It’s undermining, though, when someone says something like that. I want to do right by my kid, and if there are accommodations that should be enplaced, I want to know about them, right? Plus, over-thinking. Mr Pixel’s anxiety didn’t come from nowhere. So every time someone ‘diagnoses’ him, back down the rabbit-holes I plunge, wondering whether I missed something the first 1,487 times.

And every time, I come up empty-handed, because the things I know about (gifted, anxiety, trauma)—yep, they still seem to cover everything. Then I get a little mad, because I’ve wasted time and precious scarce energy, and because someone implying that in a short observation they can see things I can’t, is pretty insulting, when you think about it.

And then I get anxious, because I could still be wrong (or kidding myself), even though 1,4878 searches, and even though people who know Mr Pixel really well and spend a lot of time with him each week, don’t see what others somehow manage to discern, in five or ten minutes.

And then I get sad, because I feel that neither my kid nor I are being fully, truly seen.

And then I get a bit more sad, because when these diagnoses come from people who have heard but either forgotten or dismissed large parts of our story, I don’t feel heard, either.

I know how easy and tempting it is, to share your hard-won knowledge. I’ve done it myself. A couple of times when I’ve felt friends kids’ diagnoses were missing the (to me, obvious) gifted aspect, I’ve jumped in with my two cents’ worth, pointing out the similarities between their kid and mine, and the little I understand about the ways in which misdiagnosis can occur, all super keen and helpful-like.

The question is, if you don’t know the whole story, if you don’t know the child really well, if you haven’t listened long and hard, and above all, if the parent didn’t ask for your considered opinion, who is your diagnosis helping?

2 thoughts on “The pitfalls of kitchen diagnoses

  1. Barbara says:

    Really interesting read. I’m sure I’m guilty of this at times (in fact I can think of a recent example) and will watch for it in my behaviour. It’s a precarious line to walk – to have information and lived experience you think could be useful to another and listening without trying to solve something you haven’t been asked for input into!!

    • CareerusInterruptus says:

      Yep. I think a lot depends on the response. If it is going to be helpful, your first observation will prompt questions and then it’s fine to expand. If there’s any kind of negativity, then even if you are 100% correct, it’s not the right time and you may as well save your breath, rather than damage the relationship. Just like dealing with these kids!!

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