Is Autism the new term for Mentally Handicapped?

Is Autism the new term for Mentally Handicapped?


My sister was diagnosed as being mentally retarded when she was three. This was 1965 when anyone with a mental disability was labeled as such. This term was the catch-all for anyone who was a slow learner. If you weren’t mentally retarded then you were deaf, or had cerebral palsy or Down syndrome. The term autism (ASD) wasn’t a word that was  frequently used.

The term mentally retarded today is no longer used. Mentally handicapped or better yet, mentally disabled or special needs are the words used to describe a slow learner. The word autism is even more widely used for the millions of children who are diagnosed with a learning disability. So many are diagnosed with Autism, it makes you wonder how this came about.

We are not exactly sure why my sister is mentally handicapped. She was born with a club foot, yet was a beautiful baby. My mother experienced a potential miscarriage with her after her very pregnant belly hit the steering wheel while avoiding a head-on collision.  She took a drug to avoid a miscarriage, of which we suspect created her disability, yet we could never confirm this.

My sister’s behavior from an early age resembled what is now known as autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form of ASD.

She exhibited the hallmark feature of ASD which is impaired social interaction. The parents are the first to notice signs of ASD even as a baby when they are unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item of exclusion of others for a long period of time. They may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent in social engagement.

Children with ASD may fail to respond to their names and often avoid eye contact with other people. They have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they can’t understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and don’t watch other people’s faces for clues about appropriate behavior. They lack empathy.

My sister, as with children with ASD, engages in repetitive movements such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging. She would often bang her head off the closet door for what appeared for no reason. She, as many ASD children start speaking later (though due to her brain damage her speech was limited) than other children.

Children with ASD may refer to themselves by name instead of “I” or “me” and don’t know how to play interactively with other children. Some speak in a sing-song voice about a narrow range of favorite topics, with little regard for the interests of the person to whom they are speaking.

They have a higher than normal risk for certain co-occurring conditions, including Fragile X syndrome (which causes mental retardation), tuberous sclerosis (in which tumors grow on the brain), epileptic seizures, Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder. About 20 to 30 percent of children with ASD develop epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood. While people with schizophrenia may show some autistic-like behavior, their symptoms usually do not appear until the late teens or early adulthood.

The point is that many of these children diagnosed as being autistic have other mental and physical issues that need to be addressed. Autism in most cases is a disability and though it is diagnosed in 3-6 children out of 1,000, we as a society need to better address the underlining issues associated with this diagnosis, rather than ignoring the severity of the handicap so these children and their families can get the help they need to assure a positive future.


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  • Thanks for writing about and bringing attention to an important issue. As a professional who has worked with people with autism and other disabilities you mention, my answer to your question is no- autism is not the new term for mentally handicapped. Professionals are moving towards using the term intellectual and developmental disabilities to describe people who were once diagnosed with mental retardation. As you described, autism is a unique set of defined characteristics, mainly focused around social and language difficulties, as well as stereotypic or repetitive behaviors. Many people with autism have an intellectual disability as well, however, many have what we would term "normal intelligence." The two are not always linked. While I agree that we do need to give people with autism (and other developmental disabilities) and their families the supports and services they need, it is important to remember that many people with autism are happy and productive members of our community and wouldn't even necessarily identify themselves as having a disability, but just a different way of looking at things.

  • Alisa, thank you for your comment on this issue. I agree that some of those who are autistic with proper care and education can assimilate into society. But, the record numbers of those diagnosed with ASD is mind-blowing. Many of these people have other issues besides being autistic.

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