Why would school give my child the wrong diagnosis?Q: The school has classified my 5-year-old son as autistic, but the only trait he displays is speech delay. He does have some sensory issues, but they aren’t a huge deal in the school setting. He has been evaluated privately and they always say he doesn’t qualify for an autism diagnosis. I hate that he has this diagnosis because teachers and staff make comments about his behavior, saying in a hushed tone, “Well, you know he has autism.” He is mis-diagnosed. Why would the school insist he have autism when he clearly doesn’t?

A: I totally understand how this could be frustrating and confusing. Let me help clarify why a school might do this.

First, a school does not diagnose. They are not allowed to diagnose. What they do is qualify your child for special education. Based on the category your child qualifies for, they can offer different services.

Qualification under autism only means the child presents with autistic-like symptoms in the educational setting. It doesn’t mean the child has autism. It’s a way to get services. If he has other issues beyond speech, like sensory or behavior, they are probably putting him into autism to help with those. The speech/language qualification category may limit what other ways they can help him.

An autism diagnosis may me more services can be given.

In some states, funding from the state level is determined based on the child’s qualification. So a student with autism qualification will have more funds allocated than a student with just speech disability. It is possible the school wants to qualify under autism so they have more leeway to provide services. Perhaps right now you do not feel your child needs the extra services, but down the line this keeps the door open to add more support for your child.

When my son was 2 he was diagnosed as autistic by a psychologist, but her reasons for him being autistic didn’t match up with his symptoms. When I pressed her she admitted she gave him the diagnosis to get him services. In my naiveté, I refused the diagnosis. I wanted the know what was going on with my child, not get a false diagnosis for him. He was evaluated two more times by private professionals, and those people said he did not have autism. As a result of my refusal to take the first diagnosis, he never received any regional center support. He didn’t have autism, but we had to foot the bill for his early intervention.

Take the label and run with it.

What I have learned on this journey is the label is just a tool to get your child help. Yes, it may cause some issues with people misunderstanding what is really going on with your child. As long as the teachers and therapist working with your child know the facts, take the label as an opportunity to get help. As your child improves, you can have the qualification changed. Right now the more intervention he receives, the faster that improvement can happen.

Bonnie Landau
Bonnie Landau
Bonnie Landau is a licensed professional clinical counselor and educational consultant in Ventura County, California. Her goal is to help parents of neurodivergent individuals find strategies and solutions to help their children succeed in school and in life. Bonnie is also the author of Special Ed Mom Survival Guide: How to Prevail in the Special Education Process and Find Life-long Strategies for You and Your Child.