Autism – Mentally Retarded or Intellectual Disability?

311506_243785802325875_3599618_nAutism is a disorder that carries many different names.

Throughout the years I’ve heard numerous terms to describe special needs individuals. The names have changed over the years, but one has always finds its way to the front lines: Mentally Retarded.

Three years ago, President Barack Obama signed Rosa’s Law into effect. It replaced “mental retardation” with the term “intellectual disability.” Congress passed the law unanimously. 

While I understand the need for political correctness, it was a mistake for President Obama and Congress to approve this law.

Now before I go any further, let me be clear. I am not saying it is right to call a special needs individual retarded. What I am saying is that the English language allows many words to draw meaning from the context that it is used. There is a huge difference between calling someone retarded and using the medical term mentally retarded.

Let’s look at the definition. On, retard is listed as a verb and a noun. With the exception of one definition, the term means “delay” or “slow”. Unfortunately the word itself has been given a negative context because some people enjoy bringing pain and sadness to these wonderful people.

I find the term “intellectual disability” to be inaccurate. To me that word is saying my brother, as well as other autistic and special needs people, are unable to learn anything new. That their lives are now limited. The term, to me, says there is no hope for them to grow .

My brother, Brian, can assemble a 200-piece puzzle before I can find the pieces to connect a single corner. He discovered features on his iPad that I did not know about. He can recite lines from Disney movies he has not seen in years and keeps track of every Disney name he’s given to someone. Intellectual disability? I don’t think so.

What about Stephen Wiltshire, the human camera? He doesn’t seem to be disabled at all.

The Human Camera Stephen Wiltshire working on his drawing on Manhattan. Wiltshire drew this from memory.

The Human Camera Stephen Wiltshire working on his drawing of Manhattan. Wiltshire drew this from memory.

We all have subjects where we do not succeed. I’m 21 years old and I would probably fail an algebra test today. Science? Not a chance. 

“Intellectual disability”, in my mind, puts a negative image on people who are mentally retarded. While they may have a delay in learning, there is hope for them to grow. In the last 15 years, it was an accomplishment for Brian to speak in full sentences. Now he can recite an entire scene from Toy Story.

[Additional comment]

A comment from “Snow White” gave a great point. She describes her son as “Intellectually Different.” This term rings more true to the way the brain functions. Everyone is a genius at something. How we learn and process that information varies. Special needs individuals are no different. They have a different method of learning.


19 thoughts on “Autism – Mentally Retarded or Intellectual Disability?

  1. Princess Jasmine


    I completely agree!! I think you probably knew that already because I was a part of the conversation this weekend! Looking forward to your next post!!

  2. Snow White

    From a Mom’s perspective – THANK YOU Tom!!! I have struggled with being corrected when I refer to my child’s diagnosis as Mentally Retarded (which he was given 19 years ago). I am told, “No, Mrs. Foti, Brian is Intellectually Disabled” Personally – I believe Brian has an Intellectual Difference. Brian’s Intellect is processed through a unique part of his brain – his brain operates differently…I can assure you it is NOT disabled. Let’s use this blog to begin a conversation….. Intellectually Disabled or Intellectually Different???

  3. Edgar

    Tom I am so very proud of you. You know that I am always up for a fight. Look out Congress.

  4. Kaitlyn Crouse

    I think your right Tom, the term “intellectually disabled” limits a person with special needs, but at the same time “mentally retarded” has such a negative connotation to it now, I feel like there needs to be a new option. “Mentally retarded” should be the way we can say it, but 9 out of 10 times, when someone uses the word “retarded,” it isn’t for the right reason. I plan on going to graduate school for special education, so hopefully one day, we can find an answer to this question, and a conversation is the best way to start to answer it. For starters, I agree Intellectually Different is much better than Intellectually Disabled because my cousin, who also has autism, read the Harry Potter books faster than my sister, who is almost 6 years older than him, he is great with puzzles as well, and fascinated by trains and engineering. His brain works differently than mine does, that does not make his brain disabled, just different.

  5. Jafar

    Well written, Woody. Re-educating people on antiquated terminology is one of the many ways to gain acceptance & awareness. Unless people are touched by a special needs person & see the God like qualities they possess, this terminology will continue. God Bless!

  6. Would like to be Bruce from Finding Nem

    I agree with you Tom! I have seen Brian complete a puzzle so fast that I was amazed. It takes me a few weeks to complete a 200 piece puzzle. To change the terminology is wrong. Brian has come a long way from when he was first diagnosised. I remember my sister telling a story of when my Mom tried to hook up the DVD player for Brain so he could what a movie. She couldn’t fingure it out and within seconds, Brian had it hooked up and working so he would watch one of his Disney movies. He is awlays learning something new and showing us how to do it.

  7. Aurora

    So well done Tom. It is important for people to take a deeper look into what words truly mean, how they affect people, and the negative image it gives each individual. When people have experienced individuals with special needs, they know how wonderful they are and the special talents they bring to the table. Anyone who knows Brian knows better than to label him “intellectually disabled”.

  8. Ms. Steffa

    Thanks for reminding us all that two little words can mean so much. As a busy special education teacher, it sometimes is more efficient to take the easy way out and in my case I often times refer to my students with special needs as my “SPED kids.” While I certainly don’t have the answers, I do remember a term form grad school that has stuck with me. We are all DIFFERENTLY ABLED. I mean, could it be anymore true? You said it yourself Brian can do things that you nor I could never do and vice versa. Thank you for reminding me why I wake up in the morning and fight the good fight, as lonely and difficult as it may be (at times) but more rewarding than anything I could have ever imagined.

  9. Beth Schwartz

    Excellent article. Thanks for helping us better understand what a person with autism can accomplish.

  10. Julie

    You are a great advocate for your brother! Differently-abled not disabled. I have learned so much from my kids with MR. Keep up the good work!

  11. Cinderella

    Great post, Tom! Like everyone else I totally agree with what you’re saying. The term “intellectually disabled” puts quite a negative characteristic on these amazing individuals. I do however think that the majority of these decision makers, such as congress, are just ignorant as to just how unique special needs individuals are. But once they spend time with one of these special needs individuals, I guarantee they would think twice about describing them as “intellectually disabled” ever again.
    Keep up the great articles!! 🙂

  12. Pat steffa

    dear Tom,
    I would be proud to call you my son… Your blog is full of love for your brother. Love,aunt pat

  13. Lisa D'Arcy

    Thank you for this enlightening information. Your brother is very lucky to have you in his life!

  14. Bob Schwartz (aka Fix-It Felix, Sr.)

    Well done Tom! May I add that the President and Congress would do well to spend less time on political correctness and more time making a meaningful contribution to help those in need – like supporting measures to help autistic adults to survive and thrive. By the way, I agree with Snow White. Intellectually Different seems much more appropriate.

  15. Debbie Mola

    What a thoughful and thought provoking blog. You state that everyone can learn something new and grow… I believe that to be true. Look at me – I know more than I did before I read your article and am now better educated on the subject. Thank you for that.

  16. Esmerelda

    So I LOVEEE the point you brought up Tom. The way that I look at it is this, the term “mental retardation” should be used to show more of a defect (I hope that’s the right word) as opposed to the negative connotation given by society. I do not agree with the idea of changing it to intelectual disability because, although those with special needs have a disability, that term seems much more severe. Brian is so much smarter than me in so many ways and continues to shock me every time we are together. He may have a different way of showing his intelligence but he shows it in ways that we cannot comprehend. His disability is not all he is and the way I see it is we have to help society see that and look past his diagnosis as we have.

  17. Susan Smith

    Tom – Brian is very lucky to have such an articulate and concerned sibling. Over the last several years I have had the chance to meet many students with a wide range of ablities. Each one of these beautiful children brings a gift to all they meet. The best part is that each gift is unique. On a daily basis I receive hugs, high fives, and quiet glances. Just yesterday, one of our students said, “Hi, Mrs. Smith” for the first time in the three years since I have known him. Everyone in the class celebrated! I have learned more football stats, recipes,and detailed information about whales and dolphins than I ever knew before. It is amazing what one can learn if they are brave enough to ask and really listen. Keep up the great work, Tom!

  18. Jesse

    Well written Woody! To go along with Snow White’s conversation starter, I would have to say Intellectually Different. In no way does Brian exhibit someone who has a disability, but rather just processes things and sees them in a different light. Little does he know that he teaches me something every time that I am with him! As a special education teacher, how boring would my job be if all my students learned the same way? Each day with them is different from the day before. Although it is challenging, they keep me on my toes, and I wouldn’t want it any other way! Thank you, I look forward to your upcoming posts! “Yee-Haw, Ride ’em Cowboy”

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