The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

People confusing learning and mental disabilities

with 2 comments

USA Today reported findings of a telephone poll conducted by the Tremaine Foundation today, discovering that 79% of parents and 80% of non-parents associate learning disabilities with mental retardation (Acknowledged dyslexic Jay Leno wouldn’t like this), while a majority of Americans (no exact numbers are given, but we know it’s at least 51%) also incorrectly group mental disorders like ADD and autism with learning disabilities. While there’s a greater understanding of disabilities and thought processes of people that continues to grow, the Tremaine Foundation is concerned about confusion with teachers and parents in addressing those affected by a learning or mental disability. A learning disorder doesn’t affect a person’s intelligence, only the brain’s ability to process, store and respond to information.

This may explain why reporters continue to stress the general symptoms of disabilities despite the increase of coverage and resources for those diagnosed with some sort of condition. While it’s clear that a large segment of the population is mixing things up, no margin of error is listed because the results are clearly one-sided (if you’re curious, it’s 3.1% based on the 2010 census estimate of the U.S. population. I linked the calculator here for you to try). Margins of error are generally listed when opinions are closer to an even split, and will be shown on most political polls.

Regarding why there’s much confusion on what is a learning disability or mental disability, only theories exist, but the USA Today story could be used as a springboard to dive into what would be a deep pool. Many profiles of autistic people will show difficulties in mental capacity, where an adult essentially has the mind of a much younger person. Few autistic kids are mainstreamed at school and the portion of autistic adults successfully integrating in social or work environments is also small. Many are mute as a result of their communication shortcomings. How those issues are interpreted as learning disabilities is difficult to determine, but the lack of vocal communication and approaches for it could be a false alarm, since speech problems can be addressed through therapy.

On the flip side, learning disabilities, including dyslexia, could be incorrectly seen as mental retardation when the general lack of understanding about disabilities among unaffected individuals is applied. Because the brain cannot handle information in the same way as others, people afflicted with learning disabilities often require some assistance until a solution is found. Such assistance may be seen as mentally inferior, even though data proves otherwise.

Now that a background exists on why almost every autism story includes a factoid on what the condition is, the logical step for news outlets is to examine what causes the mix-up between learning and mental disabilities. Otherwise, we may continue to see old facts about most common disabilities rehashed, taking up possible space or time for things to help our understanding move forward.

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2 Responses

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  1. I think parents might confuse ADHD and autism with learning disabilities (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and the rest) because while they do affect learning, they certainly do affect services.

    “Many profiles of autistic people will show difficulties in mental capacity, where an adult essentially has the mind of a much younger person.”

    I would be careful about this. This could indicate confusion between delay and deviance. (behaviours which are normal at a younger age – or rather, normative? – versus behaviours which are not normal for any age. And we haven’t identified behaviours or behaviour clusters as unique to autism yet, have we)?
    “Mental Age is not Acceptable”
    and “Please only violate one stereotype at a time

    great point here:

    “[…]the logical step for news outlets is to examine what causes the mix-up between learning and mental disabilities. Otherwise, we may continue to see old facts about most common disabilities rehashed, taking up possible space or time for things to help our understanding move forward.”

    Adelaide Dupont

    October 5, 2010 at 5:41 pm

  2. And I find various bingo cards are very educational for revealing stereotypes in general.

    Adelaide Dupont

    October 5, 2010 at 5:42 pm


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