Autism vs Mental Retardation

What is the difference between mental retardation and autism?

I guess the simplest way to delineate the difference between the two is to define what each condition is. Mental retardation, by the way, is not a diagnosis used much by medical professionals anymore. It requires a score on a standardized intelligence test, at least two standard deviations below the norm. How this translates into numbers is as follows; if “normal” are 100 then 2 standard deviations below that are 50-75 approximately. Mental retardation is an assessment of the patient’s cognitive functioning. How their intelligence is rated to everyone else who took the exam, of the same age. Intelligence tests are not great predictors of future success or ability. Why is that the case? First of all they are culturally biased, so if the person, who is taking the test, does not share the same culture as the test maker has, they will score lower. If the test is not age appropriate, again the score on the test might not reflect their “true” abilities. There are different tests for different age groups; all of these tests have their problems.

Another way to measure mental functioning is by an assessment of the child’s sensory motor development. This is generally done by a physical or occupational therapist, and is done prior to admission to school. There are children who should not be in a mainstream classroom, their behavior, cognitive development, and socialization skills are below the acceptable guidelines for inclusion. A solution, of sorts, for these children is a special education program apart from the mainstream students. The only time these students would interact with the mainstream students is in the lunchroom, gymnasium, music and perhaps vocational education classes (i.e.; woodshop, home economics, car repair.)

People’s perceptions are hard things to change. There are still people who think that mental retardation is contagious, therefore they must not interact with them lest they catch what they have. They are very much afraid of mental retarded young men, because they feel that they will act out sexually, and they will be hurt by them. This is not to say that some generalizations people hold, do not have some elements of truth to them, but to make blanket assertions is not fair either.

It is true that autism does appear more frequently in the mental retarded population, but the converse is not true. Autistic children do not generally have diminished cognitive functioning. They have normal, even above normal intelligence. The issues some autistic children have are their inability to function socially within the “normal” population. The word normal really does not mean much; it is nothing more than another subjective assessment put on them by the medical establishment.

Often, a child that is labeled as autistic is unable to communicate with the outside world, using language. They cannot process the world in terms of letters and sounds; they do make their wishes known, however to their caregivers, often in nonverbal ways. They score normally or above normally on standardized intelligence tests. Often their difficulty arises when they have to leave the security of their primary caregivers, i.e. their parents and enter some form of educational institution. Times have definitely changed in the educational system, an autistic child; even as long ago as 10 years ago, often was labeled as retarded, because there was a shortage of empirical data on how to classify these children; or how to teach them for that matter.

Autistic children suffered from many misconceptions as to their cognitive abilities, from their teachers, psychologists, physical therapists and other medical and quasi medical professionals. There were some teachers who believed that autistic children, because of their inability to use verbal language, were unable to think. Thinking is not only a function of being able to express oneself verbally.

With the advent of assistive technology, there are ways for autistic and other non verbally capable children to attend school in a mainstream classroom. There is a special typewriter that allows the autistic child to communicate within the classroom, without having to say a word. Often they do need a paraprofessional to sit next to them, to serve as a liaison between the child and the teacher.

There are cases of autistic children becoming advocates for other autistic children, in order to dispense valuable information on how to cope with the confusing world they find themselves in. Hollywood’s attempt at promoting understanding of autism, by the movie Rainman, really just perpetuated more stereotypes about autism, then it alleviated. Not all autistic children are able to play the piano, drive a car or are institutionalized. Not all autistic children are idiot savants, meaning they have a disability in one area, but are experts in another, like mathematics or music for example.

The fact that remains true in autism is that often it develops into a more severe form as the child matures. Asperser’s syndrome and other perceptional problems do not disappear. The inability to understand jokes, facial gestures, social clues, puts autistic children and adults at a disadvantage in the mainstream world. They have a major difficulty working in a group setting, taking orders, and getting along with co-workers, following instructions and other work related abilities. Some of these skills can be learned, but the anger level and frustration threshold of many autistic sufferers is low.

There is still plenty of erroneous information about autism’s relationship to mental retardation in the media. Academic and medical journals have a storehouse of articles on this subject. The bottom line is that there is still plenty of research being done on autism. The mental health hierarchy has determined that mental retardation is no longer to be used as an appropriate diagnosis code for insurance forms. A broader definition of mental illness, which includes autism, depression, manic-depression, panic attacks, anxiety disorder is the way of the future. Psychiatrists and psychologists are trying to assist people who have difficulties relating to the world, manage to have a more productive life. Medication is not the only solution to problems, learning how to live life on life’s terms is not an easy task, but one that with consistent effort is possible.


  1. You really make it seem so easy together with your presentation. I am taking a look ahead on your next post, I will attempt to get the hang of it!

  2. I think many people think Autism is something new and caused by some change in lifestyles. Autism has always been with us. It was simply under the umbrella of Mental Retardation. And many people with Autism do suffer from a form of Mental Retardation. For some reason I believe people feel better the more they can separate the two conditions and believe somehow it is better to have Autism non related to mental retardation. They are both conditions that have varying degrees of stress on the person’s abilities in life skills. People can have “mild” Autism or “Mild” Mental Retardation. They can get along in life well with this or not if the levels are more “moderate” or “severe”. At any rate in the previous decade it really was all under the same term. That is why the condition “Autism” seemed new to the public.

    1. These children used to be placed in mental institutions or group homes which have closed. southbury training was the last to close I know .

  3. iam worried about my autistic son he hit the head on o couch this makes me so sad, i wonder if he is not damaging himself but his on resperdal treatmet for 4months now

  4. Hiya. I’m autistic and I have a blog about autism, child abuse, psychology, and some other things. Because misconceptions about autism are ubiquitous no matter where you read, it was refreshing to find this well-informed article when I was looking online for more information about what other people thought autism was.

    I tend to write most of the same ideas about autism as you did here, but I know relatively little about low-functioning autistic people. Most people confuse them with mentally retarded people, which is the belief that led me to this article via Google.

    Anyway, I would be very interested talking with you. I want to expand my knowledge a little more, especially since I struggle to find insightful information about autism from anyone else. Mostly it’s just statistics, textbook crap, and one-way views from parents.

    If you read your comments, please at least reply, even if it is to tell me you don’t wish to talk with me more for some reason or another. You won’t hurt my feelings. Thanks.

    1. I would love to be in communication with you. I have a granddaughter that is autistic and this is new to me. she is very smart but non verbal

    2. Hi Charles. May I know the name of your blog? Please… I want to know and understand more about autism. I have a niece who is diagnosed with autism. Thanks in advance.

  5. I can’t help but think we are simply re-naming and defining a set of conditions to avoid the stereotyping of “mental retardation” … and I am all for pushing past these horrible stereotypes that grew from hundreds of years of ignorance. Proselytizing that a range of autism exists should continue to be the focus forward approach, but let’s also agree that it is yet another catchall category that is simply replacing a previous catchall category (a.k.a mental retardation).

    1. I agree with you. My teenaged son is autistic but I feel certain that he falls under the category that would have been mentally retarded in addition to his current diagnosis. It would help better explain his limitations that, at least to me, seem separate from just autistic behaviors.

  6. I am very concerned for the school-aged children who are thrust into a public school system, with little to no tolerance for individuals who deviate at all from the expectations that others have on them based on notions of standard behavior. There are not enough facilities/schools that cater to children with different processing skills, leaving many children feeling allienated/unmotivated when it comes to learning.

    1. My son, who is autistic, just told me today that last semester his mainstream art teacher told him he was rude. He said he was being nice and doesn’t know why she said it to him. He has an aide in the class but she also helps other students at times, so she wasn’t with him when the teacher said this to him. I certainly can’t help him if she won’t tell his aide or his special education teacher what happened the day it happens. There are students who are deliberately disrespectful or rude, and there are the disabled who have no idea what’s happening. He’s extremely quiet and passive, known for his courtesy to all, so this was surprising to me. He’s in Woodshop this semester and said his teacher is very nice to him, he’s much happier. It’s safe to say after this many years in school, that not all teachers are prepared or necessarily willing to work with people like him. They do it because they’re forced to, which isn’t good for anybody.

      1. I know. They should probably just force all the retards to go to retard school and everyone else who is normal and will contribute to society to go to the real educational programs.

        1. Obviously you have never realized the heartache of loving someone who is mentally challenged. However, YOU could walk out your door today, climb into your car……get into an accident that would leave you brain damaged and find yourself among the “retards” as you so smugly call them. I do hope you are afforded this event and FORCED into a place where you are among them for you certainly aren’t what I would call “normal”, more of a pompous uneducated idiot as I see it and that would surely teach you a lesson and one you desperately need to learn.

          1. well said chris we just found out this week our grandson is extremly autistic. icant imagine what is causing this but we shall live and help him in what little time we have as forthe idiot who calls the beautiful people retards like he did should be ashamed of himself after all it could be him than what. thank you for letting me rant.

  7. I think Michael was making a point. We understand the word “retard, retarded” right off. Replacing abused words with confusing words like “autistic” doesn’t eliminate them, it just becomes a new word with other words to mix everybody up, and make more people “bad”. Michael could have a relative that’s different mentally. He probably does. He knows what he said was the “old word” being misused in today’s world. I would bet every human has used these words derogatorily. In my mind I think it’s dumb to use so many words to show how kind you are.

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