What Is the Difference between Mental Retardation and Autism?

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  • Written By: Jackie Myers
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There is a major difference between mental retardation and autism. Autism is not a form of mental retardation, even though many autistic people appear to act like people who suffer from retardation. In fact, autistic people generally are very intelligent. On the contrary, people who have mental retardation, by definition, lack the necessary skills for daily living and have below-average intellectual capability.

Austic people have inconceivable sensory experiences. In many cases, they may react to situations in a sensitive manner. It can also be difficult for them to interpret what they are experiencing. As a result, it is common for them to avoid being touched by other people. Their brains might have insufficient sensations to let the rest of their body know what is happening, which ultimately leads to more confusion for an autistic person.

Hearing and vision problems in people with autism also are different. Many of the noises they hear hurt their ears because they cannot process sound correctly. When people talk to them, it is difficult to understand what is being said. In a comparison of the vision capabilities of people with mental retardation and autism sufferers, autistic people have a more difficult time recognizing different faces. Bright lights and flickering frequencies make seeing objects a difficult task.


The causes of mental retardation and autism are related to several risk factors. An infection such as meningitis that is present at birth or occurs afterward can increase the chances of mental retardation. Chromosomal abnormalities and inherited metabolic disorders such as Tay-Sachs disease might cause it, as well. In autism, an abnormal development of the brain or tuberous sclerosis can contribute to it. Autism is the final result of the many disorders that affect the brain from growing properly.

When looking at the differences between these two conditions, the variations of mental retardation are separated into three general categories. People might have mild retardation, moderate to severe retardation or profound mental retardation. Mild retardation characteristics include needing only limited support and experiencing mild developmental delays. Severe mental retardation identifies the person as having an infant's or toddler's mentality despite being of an adult age. The profound level might require the person to be institutionalized.

Separate treatment plans are recommended for mental retardation and autism. The primary goal for treating people who have mental retardation is to develop them to their fullest potential. A lack of curiosity and continued infant-like behavior are signs of mental retardation. In autism, there is not a main treatment protocol. Studies have shown that structured behavioral programs work best for autistic people.


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Post 4

I know that some people will confuse autism with mental retardation. My daughter works in special education at an elementary school, and she works with all kinds of kids with special needs.

There really is a big difference between the two, and even then, each child needs to be dealt with in a unique way. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to work with these kids, but there are also rewards that go along with it.

It is easy to develop a bond with some of these kids, just like it would be with any other kid. Watching them learn simple steps and mature socially is one of the things my daughter enjoys the most.

Post 3

One of my good friends has two of her five children who are autistic. One only has what I would call slight autism, but the other one has more of a severe case. Both of these kids are boys, and I don't know if autism is more common in one sex than the other.

The older boy who really struggles also has a lot of sensory issues. He really doesn't like to be touched, and this can make it really frustrating for his mom.

Post 2

It seems like there is a lot a mystery about autism and its causes. With mental retardation there is usually some form of physical explanation that can explain why someone is retarded. When it comes to autism there are no clear and easy answers.

A few miles from my home there is an adult autism community where they can live and work on this homestead. This gives them a safe place for them to live with others, be a part of society and yet make some money working at the farm at the same time. They grow a lot of crops, and plants and have a community sponsored agriculture program at the homestead where they live.

Post 1

My younger sister has Down syndrome which is a chromosome abnormality and is considered a form of mental retardation. She will never be able to live and function without some kind of assistance.

Even among kids who have Down syndrome the level at which they can function varies. Some are more advanced than others. She attended school until she was 19 years old, and during that time learned how to read a few words. She is able to understand most everything that is being said to her, but unable to communicate very much back to you.

You can see how frustrating this is for her, and so many times I have wished I could do more to help her. One positive thing is that there are a lot more programs to help with those who are mentally retarded than there ever used to be.

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