What are the differences between Autism and Mental Retardation?

Are Autism and Mental Retardation the same thing?
The answer is NO

Despite all the similarities, there are also many significant differences between them. The crucial difference between Autism and Mental Retardation is that Autism is a mental state which appears from early childhood, characterized by a massive difficulty in communicating, interacting, and forming relationships with other people. Children with Autism do not generally have decreased cognitive functioning. In contrast, Mental Retardation (Intellectual Disability) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by intellectual and adaptive functioning affected. Mental Retardation is an assessment of the children's cognitive functioning. 

To better understand the main difference between Autism and Mental Retardation, you have to know the meaning of the two following terms:

➊ Intellectual ability - an individual's ability to learn, to think abstractly, and apply the lessons. 

➋ Adaptive capacity - the expertise an individual needs to live independently, showing communication and social skills.

Essential differences between Autism and Mental Retardation


• Autism cases deviate in the IQ range with below and above average test results.

• Autistic children have average or even above-average intelligence. 

• The problem that some children face is an inability to function socially within the "normal" population.

• An autistic child cannot communicate with the outside world using language.

• Children with Autism may be able to progress in some areas smoothly but have difficulties in language, communication, and social interaction.

• They cannot understand the world in terms of letters and sounds, and they make their wishes known often in nonverbal ways.

• Children may lack empathy for other people because they have problems understanding their emotions and emotional responses.

Mental Retardation

• Mental Retardation requires a score on an intelligence test at least two standard deviations below the norm.

• If "normal" is 100, then two standard deviations below that are 50-75 approximately.

• Intelligence tests are not great predictors of their future success or ability.

• Tests are culturally biased, and if the person taking the test does not share the same culture as the person who has made the test, they will score lower.

• Mental Retardation may present speech and vocabulary challenges but not to the same stage as a case of severe Autism, which can make someone nonverbal.

• Patients with mental retardation delay oral language development, deficits in memory skills, learning social rules, and an issue with problem-solving skills.

• A way to measure mental functioning is by assessing the child's sensory-motor development.

Aspects about Autism

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder determines a person to show repetitive behavioral patterns and often impairs their social interactions with other people.

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) that affects brain development, mainly communication, language, and social skills. One of five PDDs includes Asperger's syndrome, fragile X syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder-not-otherwise-specified (PDD-NOS). Doctors typically diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in childhood before three years of age, according to the American Autism Association. Some symptoms might appear from the moment of birth, while others show as they become older.

Problems in communicating and social interacting include:

• Unusual speech patterns like using a robot tone/voice.
• Trouble in maintaining eye contact with people.
• Not reading facial expressions and body language.
• Repeat the exact phrases frequently.
• Difficulty in understanding others' emotions and expressing their own.
• Difficulties in forming relationships.
• Not responding to their name.
• Disinterested in what is going on around them.

In a Nutshell 

Autism is NOT an Intellectual Disability. Deficits in Intellectual ability are not a part of the criteria for diagnosis of Autism and have never been. Autism delays developing Adaptive capacity, which presents an uneven trajectory in language, communication, and emotional states. In this case, development is not static. 

Mental Retardation (Intellectual Disability) is a disorder that challenges children's intellectual ability to learn. Conversely, this does not equate to an inability to understand. 

Meaning and characteristics of Mental Retardation (Intellectual Disability)

Mental Retardation, also known as Intellectual Disability, is a generalized neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significantly impaired intellectual and adaptive functioning. It is defined by an IQ under 70 and deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors that affect everyday, general living.

Adaptive skills are the skills needed for daily life. These skills include speaking a language and understanding words, lack of communication, community resources, health, self-care, social skills, and functional academic skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic).

A child is generally diagnosed with mental retardation before the age of 18. Family members suspect intellectual and developmental delays when a child enters milestones slower. For example, a child may be more reluctant to develop motor skills than other children his age. As a result, he may take longer than usual to go over. 

According to the slow development of motor skills, a child with mental retardation may be hesitant to develop language and daily living skills. For example, he may be incapable of brushing his teeth or eating alone. He may also start talking much later than other children his age.

Mental Retardation classifies into four categories:

➊ Mild Mental Retardation - IQ from 50-55 to 70

Approximately 85% of the mentally disabled patients are in the mildly retarded category. They can often acquire academic skills up to the 6th-grade level. They can become relatively self-sufficient and, in some cases, live independently with the community and social support.

➋ Moderate Mental Retardation - IQ from 35-40 to 50-55

About 10% of individuals with mental retardation are considered moderately retarded. They can carry out work and self-care tasks with careful supervision. They typically acquire communication skills in childhood and can live and function successfully within the community in a managed environment such as a group home. 

➌ Severe Mental Retardation – IQ from 20-25 to 35-40

About 3-4% of the mentally disabled are severely retarded. They may master fundamental self-care skills and some communication skills. Many severely retarded individuals/children can live in a group home.

➍ Profound Mental Retardation – IQ below 20-25

Only 1-2% of the people with mental retardation are profoundly retarded. They can develop necessary self-care and communication skills with appropriate support and training. An accompanying neurological disorder often causes their retardation. The profoundly retarded need a high level of structure and supervision.
The American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) has developed another widely accepted diagnostic classification system for mental retardation. The AAMR classification system focuses on the capabilities of the intellectually disabled individual rather than on the limitations. The categories describe the level of support required. They are intermittent, limited, extensive, and pervasive support. The AAMR classification mirrors The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) classification. 

Causes of Autism and Mental Retardation

The roots of Autism are initially unknown, but significant numbers of studies have begun to learn how it develops.
In twin studies, Autism often has a strong correlation among twins. For example, if one twin has Autism, the other may have Autism an estimated 36-95% of the time.

Autistic people may also change crucial areas of their brains that impact their speech and behavior. Environmental factors play a role in the development of ASD, although doctors have not yet confirmed a link.

Mental Retardation is often associated with self-injury and aggression. The age at which they first appear and the severity of symptoms depends on each cause. 

- Hereditary factors are also a cause of Mental Retardation—an inherited abnormality of the genes, such as Fragile X Syndrome.  

- Problems during pregnancy. Intellectual disability can result when the fetus does not develop properly. 

- Problems at birth. For example, if a baby has problems during labor and delivery, such as not getting enough oxygen.

- Certain types of diseases or toxins. 

- Iodine Deficiency affects approximately 2 billion people in the world.

- Malnutrition is a common cause of degraded intelligence.

Capacities and level of independence of the people diagnosed

Autism: Patients with Autism can manage their day-to-day activities considerably tremendously and have an independent life most of the time. However, this depends on the severity of the disease. Individuals with ASD go on to live and work independently. However, many people with ASD require continued aid or intervention throughout their lives.

Introducing therapies and other treatments early in life can help lead to more independence and a better quality of life.


Mental Retardation: Patients with Mental Retardation need social support and support from caretakers to put through their lives. Their capacity and level of independence are lower.

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