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.