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When the Label Doesn’t Fit

May 3, 2012

Clearly, we humans have a strong need for labels and they serve us well when it comes to describing things, e. g. that vase is worth $120, or terra-cotta is the color of her kitchen floor. Labels are less useful when used to describe people because our properties are fluid and ever-changing. While describing someone as funny seems innocuous enough, it is still a label and as such is completely irrelevant at certain moments. To say she is inconsistent or flighty is also to label, and again may or may not fit depending on the day, time, and circumstances.

Labels provide us with security. They help us interpret the world and stabilize our worry that things might change or happen unexpectedly. Labels bring order out of chaos. If I know how something works, I can stop thinking of it and move on to another problem or issue. Labels anchor and provide consistency. If I know a chair is a chair, I know what that means and I can sit on it and it will hold me up and I don’t need to worry about it further. The problem with labels for human behavior is that we change and morph from situation to situation, we are completely unlike a chair.

And so, irresistibly, we wield fat, skinny, beautiful, ugly, rich, poor, smart, ignorant, awesome, disgusting and on and on, as if they tell the story and we can stop thinking of the person as a human in process. The label gives us the comfort that we have that person pegged and know exactly where they fit. Effectively, once we apply the label, whether positive or negative, we can dismiss the person just like we would the chair.

A bit of a renegade, never one to fit in those neat and tidy boxes, I work hard to keep from labeling and even I can’t avoid it, it’s so insidious. But I learned the dangers of labels in my years of speech pathology. When parents and teachers had labels for a child, they began treating the child as if that’s who he or she was. Sometimes, I found that changing my expectations and freeing the child from the label brought the child to a whole new level of behavior. In those situations, the child almost always experienced a big jump in developmental gains.

The most poignant of those stories was of a mother who brought her almost 6-year-old to see me when I was still practicing speech pathology. Sam was trying very hard to speak but struggled to form the sounds. He had some consonants and most of the vowels. At more than five years of age, this was cause for alarm.

The teachers at his school thought he should learn to use pictures to communicate and predicted that Sam would need some sort of assistance to talk, perhaps forever. I asked Sam’s mom to give me a few sessions before I gave her my opinion about his prognosis. After a few weeks, I could see that Sam had so much to say that he would be incredibly frustrated that he couldn’t share his ideas quickly and that he had a good chance of learning to talk. His rich imagination would be a big motivation for him to share with others.

Because we live in a verbal world and I didn’t want Sam to practice with pictures until we had tried everything I could think of for him to learn to speak verbally, I asked Sam’s mom to give me a year. She agreed, a little nervously, and we began.

We focused and focused and focused. Some weeks I used the sounds that Sam could say and we practiced them in many words. Other weeks, I used the words he was trying to say. Gradually, he gained a consonant, then another. Then the vowels became clearer. Often when we worked, Sam was lying down on the floor or rolling around copying some silly moves I did. I enlisted Sam to help me so he could get his ideas out and he was a trooper. We talked about Pokemon and every instantiation of that fantasy world. The sounds in the multi-syllabic names that eluded him so became our therapy material.

Within 6 months, it was clear that the strategy was working and within a year, though Sam was still very difficult to understand, his parents got 90% and I was getting over 50. The next amazing thing that happened was that Sam’s mom found him another school, a place where the teacher didn’t think that because he couldn’t be understood that he was not intelligent. Sam began to flourish, especially socially, and his classmates eagerly helped interpret for the teacher when he couldn’t understand. Their support gave him more encouragement and he thrived in that year.

By the time he was almost 9, he was talking freely to anyone who would listen. We worked on the finer details of how to project his voice and how to enunciate super clearly. We worked on posture and standing up tall for good breath support. About a year ago, I stopped seeing Sam and he continued on with his school speech pathologist.

Working with Sam reinforced the value of avoiding labels and the value of leaving his future open. This supposedly non-verbal child went on to perform on stage at both school and church. He took karate lessons and became able to stand tall and kick and yell hi-ay!

I will always remember Sam and others like him who taught me over and over to let go of the obvious label and dig down to see what is underneath. In any situation, the question becomes one of motives and the process that brings a person alive.

I can’t wait to see what Sam does next. And, just like him, I’m going to move past the labels in my own life. I’ll leave those labels lying on the table and continue my work of undoing old habits and finding greater ease, knowing that often when things seem impossible they rarely are . . .

. . .

Friday Class, 10:45am at the Subud House
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