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Autism and Mental Retardation: Are They the Same?

Autism and Mental Retardation: Are They the Same?

It is often assumed, erroneously, that Autism is just another form of Mental Retardation. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Mental Retardation has to do with cognitive functioning, Autism has to do with behavioral and communication abilities and is unrelated to the patient’s intellectual level. Here, we break down the difference between the two conditions so that parents worried about their child’s behavior know what to look out for.

Understanding Autism vs. Mental Retardation

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect social, behavioral, and communicative abilities. It is a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) that impacts brain development and can range from mild to severe in its symptoms. Children with Autism have difficulty understanding emotions, expressing needs, and communicating with other people. IQ level is unaffected by Autism.

Mental Retardation is an outdated term for what doctors today call an intellectual disability. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which intellectual and adaptive functioning are considerably reduced. There are four levels of Mental Retardation, namely mild, moderate, severe, and profound, depending on the patient’s IQ level. A lower-than-average IQ level is one of the diagnostic criteria for the condition. Mental Retardation, however, does not necessarily mean an inability to learn. With the right approach, children can learn all the cognitive skills they need to be productive at school and elsewhere.

Similarities between Autism and Mental Retardation

There are certain similarities in the way Autism and Mental Retardation present, which is why the two are often confused.

  • Both are neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Both can occur when there are problems during pregnancy or difficulties during birth
  • Both can lead to delays in verbal communication
  • Both impact the way a child interacts with other people
  • Both can lead to aggressive or self-harming behavior in the child
  • Both can lead to difficulty integrating into work and social environments

Differences between Autism and Mental Retardation

Autism and Mental Retardation are entirely different conditions, which is why the differences considerably outweigh the similarities. We can contrast the two as follows:

  • While most cases of Autism become evident by the time the child is 3 years of age, Mental Retardation may not be evident until the child is in grade school or even older.
  • Children with Autism display average or above-average intellectual ability. Those children with Mental Retardation, however, have IQ levels at least two standard deviations below the average.
  • Children with Autism often have trouble understanding emotions and may thus demonstrate a lack of empathy. Those with Mental Retardation do not have any specific problem with understanding emotions.
  • Autism diagnoses are based on diagnostic criteria relating to behavior and social interaction and are thus more objective. Mental Retardation, however, is diagnosed via intelligence tests, where it has been observed that the tester might give the child a lower score if they are from different cultures.
  • Individuals with milder levels of Autism can learn the skills they need to live and work independently as they grow older. Those with Mental Retardation, however, will require some level of professional support even in mild cases.

Treatment for Autism and Mental Retardation

For both Autism and Mental Retardation, early intervention and therapy is the best way to teach the child the skills they need to thrive. Trained therapists can teach them personal care skills, language skills, communication skills, and problem-solving skills, depending on the extent of their symptoms. Children with Autism will typically require more assistance with behavioral and emotional abilities, while children with Mental Retardation will need more assistance with spoken language, memory, problem solving, and social rules. For severe Autism or Mental Retardation, patients may need significant daily care or even round-the-clock support, which means that the doctor may recommend checking them into a care facility.

In conclusion, Autism and Mental Retardation are unique conditions and need to be treated as such. What is vital for parents to remember is that a diagnosis of either is neither the fault of the parent nor a judgment on the child. With the right treatment as well as enough love and patience at home, the child can pick up the skills they need to live as fruitful a life as possible.

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