Mental age is not acceptable.


In the posts about Ashley X some people have been referencing mental age again. Then Susan Senator posted the following (emphasis mine):

I can’t help it. I love Nat with all my heart, the Nat I know and have adored since the moment I felt him in my womb. But in this photo I see the Nat I might have had, truly older than Max, mischievous, teasing, strong, his own person, about to go off into the world without me.

(I’m going to skip over the idea that Nat is not strong, not his own person, and that it’s not possible for him to go out into the world without his mother, and just focus on mental age here, but those are problems too.)

Please get straight what mental age actually is: It’s a myth. It says that if you score the same level on a certain test, that the “average” person of another age does, then your mind is really that age. That means that at the age of five my mental age was supposedly eight, at the age of fifteen it was supposedly eighteen, and at the age of twenty-two it was still supposedly eighteen. (Unless all my calculations are off.)

Do you really think that at five, I was somehow like an eight-year-old? I was not like any eight-year-old I’ve met. And at the ages of fifteen and twenty-two I was not like any eighteen-year-old I’ve met. I was eighteen when I was eighteen. Period. That’s the only time I was ever eighteen. Do I think differently than others? Yes. Am I a different age than I really am? No. Is it useful to construct me as if I am? No, it’s detrimental.

To say someone has the mind of a child (or an adult) because of a test score is like calling them a cat because they can’t fly. It’s nonsensical. It’s offensive. It’s responsible for some of the worst atrocities towards people with intellectual disabilities. And it’s not okay.

This is similar to those diagnostic parlor games that some autistic people like to play, while other autistic people are in the psychiatric system. Only this is idle musings about “mental age” instead of about the fine details of whether someone’s a sociopath or not. It’s just as bad. It does just as much damage. It should be accepted just as little. Mental age is not an okay construct to run around playing with. It’s a dangerous one, it costs adults our autonomy on a regular basis, it’s the basis for most of the restrictions placed on people with developmental disabilities, and it is not okay no matter what the excuse. People who purport to support the rights of people with developmental disabilities ought not to invoke it.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

77 responses »

  1. It always seemed pretty dumb to me. I think it might have got its start with the earliest intelligence tests, which went with the formula of “chronological age/mental age.”

    Years ago intelligence tests changed so that they are normed according to a sample of people the same age as the test taker. So, now when you recieve an IQ score of 115, you are said to respond to the items better than about 75% of people your age.

  2. One more comment, and then I swear I’ll go to bed and let someone else post for once:

    In (only partial) defense of the concept of intelligence testing, I was reading the manual today for the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale and it said something like this (paraphrased):


    Use of this test for individuals with physical or language impairments may require some modifications.
    … (descriptions of possible modifications)
    In the event that it is not possible to modify this test so that it can be understood and responded to meaningfully given the impairments of the examinee, or that such modifications represent a large enough departure from the standardized administration as to render the test invalid (because it’s not similar enough to how it was administered when the norms were established), this test should not be used.

  3. In reference to the testing example you mentioned, I think that “mental age” was probably originally intended to express the statistical observation that “people of this chronological age generally score in this range on this particular test”.

    But then, people took that observation to mean that somehow, brains ideally develop along some kind of linear function, and that people who score lower or higher than their chronological age norm are somehow at an anomalous point on the function. The problem with this is that the function *itself* is a fiction. Development isn’t even fully linear in “typically developing” humans, and like you, I have also seen a person’s supposed “mental age” be used as a basis for denying them rights.

    Additionally, I’ve also seen and experienced the opposite — being told that “someone of my age” ought to be able to do X, Y, and Z by now, and that somehow because I have certain academic skills I ought to be able to do something else that is completely unrelated as far as my brain is concerned.

  4. Thank you! Thank you!

    I had a classmate with CP in special ed PE last semester (strangely, I think that class taught me far more about abuse of power by “professionals” than it did about actual physical stuff, beyond teaching me that I’m great at badminton and at climbing folded bleachers) who had a bunch of people going on about her purported mental age.

    And I heard others’ claims about her mental age and/or capability to understand anything every day, but that was contrasted with someone who told me quite clearly that she knew no one took her seriously, that she knew very few or no people treated her like a real person.

    I’m worried about that girl, and the many others like her. I don’t know what her future or that of anyone else with similar labels will hold. But it seemed like she would be ultimately stuck in a position of forced compliance (justified by the idea of ‘mental age’), and that idea terrifies me. From what I’ve seen (and I haven’t even had *that* much experience compared to a lot of people), mental age is pretty much only used to justify patronizingness or to make faulty claims about why someone shouldn’t be allowed any power in their own life, neither of which are good uses of anything.

  5. As an educational psychologist, I actually use tests and measures like the Wechsler suite. I see mental age conversions in the manuals and – whilst it seems to make sense on the face of it – there is a way in which the concept of ‘mental age’ is actually a serious psychological fiction.

    ‘Mental age’ relates to the level of performance (in terms of years of chronological age) that a so-called ‘normally-intelligent’ person could achieve on the test, regardless of the test-taker’s chronological age. When I used the block design on my daughter, she was 4yrs-9mths old; she scored a ‘mental age equivalent’ of 12yrs-0mths, and for her age there were no norms available (so I had to use the MAE table instead). But does this mean that my daughter’s mental abilities were the same as those of a 12 yr-old child? Of course not: it meant that she was able to tackle that particular task in such an accomplished way that she fared as well as a typical 12yr-old child. Big difference.

    It shocks me that a great many people in education and health care (including psychologists!) don’t actually get that point.

    I think that the whole ‘mental age’ concept has outlived whatever usefulness it might have had when Stern was using it in order to develop a relative measure of intellectual ability where the available tests at the time failed to do so.

  6. I agree that it is impossible to define someone’s mental age, since a person will show different skills and abilities in different areas. Furthermore, a lack of a response does not indicate a lack of knowledge.
    I score between 120 and 140 on verbal iq tests and those that require me to remember general trivia, because I’ve been reading from an early age and I’ve good a good long term and rote memory. I score between 80 and less than 50 on the non verbal parts. I can discuss and debate thigs that I am knowledgeable about. I can’t remember to eat, drink, brush my hair or clean myself a lot of the time. I can make up songs to sing to my lads, but can’t recognise faces of people I know a lot of the time. I read newspapers to keep abreast with the political situation and like to do crosswords and general knowledge puzzles to entertain myself. I also like to watch old Doctor Who episodes, have just been reading a collection of Fourth Doctor comics 9which are aimed at children) and I like sliding down helterskelters and big slides. So what’s my mental age? Based on some things I’d appear to have a mental age that matches my chronological age. Based on other factors my mental age would be a lot lower. The fact of the matter is, as with anybody, it’s not as simple to work out.

  7. Sorry, I meant to say that there would be different PERCEPTIONS of mental age to outsiders based on what I am doing and how I’m reacting to things when they see me.

  8. “Intelligence testing” — GAH!

    It’s like opening a bag of m&ms and proceeding to count only the green ones — because those happen to be the ones we like. Oh, but this is not at all arbitrary, you see, because our whole research team agrees that the green m&ms are by far the best, in fact, they are the only ones that are truly essential. Thus, only the green m&ms actually have value. Value to us, yes, but since everyone agrees that we are the experts, we are the ones who set the standard.

    So, we only count the green m&ms, and if there aren’t as many in the bag as we would like, we categorize that bag as “deficient.” Now, we’re given to suspect that there are other m&ms in there, doing something or other, but we’re not interested in those for the reasons already discussed. In fact, we have expended great effort to train ourselves not to see those non-green m&ms at all, because otherwise they just get in the way, and might prevent us from taking an accurate count of the green ones. Can’t risk that.

    So now, when we open a new bag to count the green m&ms only to find that there are none, we must believe our properly trained eyes and confidently assert that the bag is “empty.”

    If you’re a green m&m (or if you instinctively know your survival depends on being seen as one), all of this makes perfect sense. If not, well shut the hell up — neither your opinions nor YOU are of any value here, so keep your nihilistic delusions to yourself. In fact, for reasons already explained, you don’t exist at all.

    So, everyone agrees. What a wonderful world we live in!

  9. In my post, I was not talking about how Nat was *not* his age. I, too, do not believe in such testing, and I have said many, many times publicly that with autism, you never know when something positive might happen developmentally. Many wonderful things are possible, you have to keep trying, and I do. But the fact remains that Nat does not appear/act to be older than his NT younger brother most of the time and needs quite a bit more support from all of us. We give it to him, we love him, that will never change. But as a flawed human being I can’t help but wish things were a little different sometimes, for my selfish dreams. I think that way about all my children, and myself, by the way.

    I am sorry that I offended people with some of my maternal feelings/wishes.

  10. Susan, you may not have been talking about test scores but you are still talking about something really similar. You can call that maternal feelings or whatever. But generally when I write about feelings that I know are wrong or misguided or guided by prejudice, I don’t just call them selfish, I actually elaborate on how they are wrong or misguided or guided by prejudice. That way there can be no mistaking them for anything remotely resembling reality. The way you have written, and still write, about those things, makes it sound as if you actually believe them, or some large part of you does, and as if they’re acceptable things for a person to believe, or at least “understandable”, or something.

  11. The concept of mental age was introduced and developed by the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, in the early 20th century as a way of measuring the abilities of mentally retarded children, and determining their classification as idiots, imbeciles or morons. It is a rough and ready way of measuring the ability of children compared with their same age peers. It has been used (I don’t know if it still is) in research with autistic children, in which their abilities are compared with ‘normal’ children or mentally retarded children of the same mental age.

    I thought mental age meant that a child has the academic ability of children of that chronological age. For example, a nine-year-old child with a mental age of eleven has the ability to do the work of eleven-year-old children in school.

    I have never seen mental age used in relation to adults.

  12. I don’t understand how feelings can be “wrong.” They just are. What is wrong is to act on feelings that would hurt oneself or others. If in writing about my feelings about that photo and my son I have hurt some people, I apologize. What I was trying to do was honestly portray my mixed feelings. I wish that I did not have mixed feelings about autism. I would be lying if I said I was totally excited for Nat’s future. Knowing how tough the world is, regarding acceptance, employment, victimization of the disabled, I do fear for Nat on his own. And I will try to always be there for him. I will try to change how I feel, and I will try to change how the world treats people like Nat, but I also know that it is very tough to do so.

  13. dkmnow=

    The reason I mentioned in my second post that I was offering only a partial defense of intelligence testing was pretty much as you describe. I’m just getting started learning about all this stuff (I’m training as a psychometrician for the summer, and in the fall I’ll be starting graduate school and doing an internship in assessment). What I’ve noticed so far is that most of the huge problems with these tests are not in the tests themselves, but in the way they are (mis)used.

    One of the first things I’m being taught, that’s being pounded into my brain actually, is not to use the test to make conclusions that are not warranted. Even the Wechsler manual points out that a very low score does not neccesarily equal mental retardation. If the low score could be caused by other factors, or if other things may be going on neurologically (as would be suggested by a huge discrepancy between verbal and performance abilities), a clinician should not just slap on the label of mental retardation.

    I haven’t read/heard anything about these tests’ use with people who have other kinds of neurology, such as autistic or CP, but I would be wary of using them at all. The tests were not normed on autistic people, and unless I saw some research about it, I wouldn’t think the norms would apply.

  14. I remember when I was a pre-teen I said to my father, “I’m my own age physically but older than my age intellectually and younger than my age emotionally.” Now I’m left wondering if I came up with that observation independently or if I had absorbed something an adult said about mental age and emotional age.

  15. I don’t understand how feelings can be “wrong.” They just are.

    That’s therapy culture for you. Actually, they don’t “just are”. They come from preconceptions about the world. They don’t arise out of nowhere pristinely untouched by what you think about the world or something, they arise from the interaction of how you see the world with the world you’re seeing.

    That said:

    What is wrong is to act on feelings that would hurt oneself or others.

    Yes, that is definitely true. Even when a feeling is wrong (i.e. the product of damaging or incorrect assumptions), it can be expressed in ways that are right or wrong.

    If in writing about my feelings about that photo and my son I have hurt some people, I apologize.

    You’re apologizing to the wrong people, though, and possibly for the wrong thing.

    If you think this is about hurting people’s feelings, you’re way wrong.

    If you think that the people you need to apologize to about this are the people who’ve objected to it, you’re also way wrong.

    If you think that an apology is the main answer to this problem, you could also be wrong.

    The thing is…

    …I went to a conference of people with developmental disabilities recently. It was about sexuality. Everyone in the entire place had experienced being considered some variant of “a child in an adult body” or “a younger person in an older person’s body” or “childlike” and so forth.

    There were serious discussions about involuntary sterilization. Which had happened to some people there. One man stood up and informed the whole room with an extreme level of seriousness in his voice, that if you were going to get “fixed” it was entirely your choice and should never, ever be a parent’s or guardian’s choice. He said this because he’d been there.

    Many people there had been denied a sexuality.

    Many people there had been denied other aspects of adult life.

    The reason that we all had those sorts of experiences were because of the concept that we were really in some way younger than we were. Whether in the official concept of mental age, or in the sort of sentiments that you talked about in your post.

    Those are the end consequences of these beliefs, and we have all lived them. These beliefs reach far beyond hurt feelings.

    And if anyone needed the apology it’s everyone with developmental disabilities. But it’s not really even an apology we need.

    It’s that when people talk about these things.

    They talk about them in a way that’s unambiguous about the wrongness.

    Not wistful sadness that we are not “really older” than our younger siblings. And if that wistful sadness must be described, being described in a sense that makes it absolutely unambiguous that this sort of thing is not okay. Describing the consequences of such beliefs for other people, instead of just apologizing for hurting people’s feelings. Otherwise it just kind of looks prejudiced and/or self-indulgent to people who are aware of what these things do to people, and totally normal to people who aren’t aware of what these things do to people.

    Some of my favorite writers are people who feel certain ways, or think certain things, and write about those honestly, but then write far far far more honestly about the consequences of those beliefs and feelings for other people.

    Because it’s not fully honest to view these things as arising from a vacuum and going out into a vacuum where they have no consequences and no causes. It might be more honest than acting like they’re not there in the first place. But it doesn’t take into account the world beyond oneself, and even just saying it’s “selfish” isn’t concrete enough to say what the consequences are.

    Especially to people who don’t know why these things are selfish. Or what the destructive impact of the ideas are. They might just think you mean it’s selfish to dwell on your dreams for your child when your child is really someone else. They might not pick up on the unexamined (at least in the writing, unexamined) assumptions within what’s being described. Etc.

    So since you didn’t say anything, I did, because people need to know what the consequences are of these sorts of ideas. And since you didn’t say what those consequences were. I did. Nothing to do with hurt feelings.

  16. I think it’s more than tested “mental age” that throws parents off. It’s also the developmental differences. Maybe its more the developmental differences. There’s quite a lot of individual variation in non-autistic people, so that people might say you have an “old” 18 year old or a “young” one. But with autistic kids, developing in a way that doesn’t match the charts, it can be confusing.

    Re the photo of Nat, I don’t think perceived age is the real issue. It’s that he looks so normal, so non-autistic, so like other kids who do things that he doesn’t, like staying out all night and refusing to call, driving a car and getting a girl pregnant in the back seat, taking extreme risks to look cool in the eyes of his so-called friends, and telling his parents to stay out of his life. You know, the stuff we all dream of.

  17. It may not be “the real issue”, but it became the issue when it was discussed in that manner without qualifications.

    It’s not the people saying “Mental age means such-and-such blah blah blah whatever” from a professional standpoint who have the most influence on everyday opinions.

    It’s everyone who repeats the stuff and reinforces the ideas without qualifying what they’re saying and making it only into a “parental feelings” thing when it’s not, when it goes way beyond someone’s feelings, anyone’s feelings.

    Those are the people with the real influence, that’s why I bring it up.

  18. There are three things here. There’s the fear that people with disabilities, developmental or not pick up (and my parents never let a hint of this slip, but I picked it up from other people “sharing their feelings” about raising disabled children), that the sheer fact of not being disabled is far more valued and desired and loved than anything a disabled person can do with their life. The idea that the fantasy, never-disabled, substitute child (and if the parents were raising a disabled child, the alternate version IS a substitute) is more valued and wanted than the real child, no matter what the real child does.

    Then there’s the mental age nonsense, an assumption that’s wholly and completely regurgitated without the slightest critical examination of what leads a person to assume that a developmentally disabled person is not their chronological age, but “really” the age some IQ test gives, or the harm that can be done by treating them as such.

    Finally, there’s the parental entitlement complex, claiming that because raising a disabled child is sometimes difficult (true, but ask any other parent how easy they have it) and doesn’t come with a road map (again, true, but ask other parents how many kids follow the trail), that parents of disabled children have the only right to speak about their children’s lives, and are entitled to “vent” by publicly pontificating on how their children are tragic helpless burdens who can never measure up, but they’re so heroic for not announcing this to the kid’s face (because presumably, no people like THAT can read).

    Susan Senator reinforced all three, and hurt not just the feelings of people here, but the lives of people who are subjected to the nasty consequences of all three. If you mean better, Ms. Senator, don’t dismiss this as “offending people” or hide behind the “Those are just my feeeeelings!” excuse. Write better messages.

  19. “It’s not the people saying “Mental age means such-and-such blah blah blah whatever” from a professional standpoint who have the most influence on everyday opinions.”

    I think you’re right about that. Regardless of what the official, published viewpoints are nowadays, people are still affected by these concepts as they are actually verbalized in everyday conversations. That’s one reason blogs and forums like this are so important.

  20. Yeah. And I’m seriously not trying to pick on a person, I know people can get that impression at times. But it’s not like I’m trying to say “Here you are you’re a bad person for saying this shame on you blah blah blah.”

    It’s more like, I’m trying to say, “There’s more consequences to this than you’re articulating, and the way you’re saying it means that more people will have certain views reinforced that have such-and-such a consequence in people’s lives and so forth and I don’t think this is okay.”

    So it’s not that I want people to publicly self-flagellate over this or somesuch, just more like, would like to see something said in a light that’s less dangerous to people or something.

    (Sorry for all the blahblahblahs and somethings, it’s what happens when I’ve been out all day trying to get stuff done and dealing with weird communication situations that are straining language in interesting ways.)

  21. Rachel Hibberd

    “The reason I mentioned in my second post that I was offering only a partial defense of intelligence testing was pretty much as you describe…”

    Thanks. And just so you know, when I posted that comment, I had not yet read any of the other comments, nor even all of the original post itself. When the analogy hit me, I had to pound it out as quickly as possible before the energy evaporated (I may yet expand and refine it). I had intended for it to be lighthearted in tone, but it certainly took a turn for the caustic, as my impulses are wont to do.

    But I just want you and everyone here to know that it was purely a snark at the widespread misconception and misuse of such testing — a snark in no way meant personally, nor in reference to yours or anyone else’s comments. And I do apologize if it came off that way.

    Best wishes.

  22. Re: Being seen as younger than one’s age.

    This is a very small piece of how it worked for me as a teenager. The “thing”, whatever it was that was different about me had no name, as Asperger’s hadn’t yet been recognized by the powers that be. But my parents told me regularly that I was immature and naive and incapable of taking care of myself. These were the reasons they gave me for not being allowed to do the things others my age did, including dating, staying out past dark, staying home alone at night, riding a bus, and even at the age of 17, I was not allowed to go out of town to visit a college I wanted to attend for a structured introduction arranged and facilitated by the institution. The result, of course, was that my attempts to “grow up” were thwarted and I remained more immature than necessay, resulting in quite a bit of trouble when I had to learn how to do some of these things at an age when failure to meet societal expectations in these areas carries far greater consequences.

    Conversely, I was expected to do certain things that were important to my parents’ image of themselves as parents of a “normal” kid, such as driving a car, though I protested that I was in no way ready to do that at the age of 16.

    It was very confusing to be given constantly the message that I was doing things wrong, when I was simply living my life as well as I could. This did not help me to learn self-respect or confidence or the belief that anyone in the world would ever understand. I do not doubt that these attitudes and their consequences had much to do with the suicidal thoughts which accompanied throughout my teens and young adult life, and the years of self destructive behavior lasting into my thirties.

  23. The use of the term ‘mental age’ perpetuates the attitude that people with developmental disabilities are really children. It denies them their full humanity.

    While theoretically the term could be used in a neutral way as giving a rough snapshot description of a child’s academic abilities; its essential wrongness outweighs any advantages it may have.

  24. Tangential, but relevant:

    When we’re 50 and 45, five years’ difference is no big deal.

    When we’re 10 and five, it’s huge.

    I’ve read thousands of descriptions of disabled kids being “five years behind!” in their skills or knowledge.

    But they eventually get “there”. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until one is 15, or 35, or even 51. This year I learned a handful of very significant things about myself and others. I hope to learn more next year, too.

  25. Bev
    I have been there and done that ! My frustration mostly was based on the fact that I was called immature when required to accept the fact that I would never be respected or accepted for who I was. If I protested injustice and wrongness in people’s attitudes I was being immature. What people also forget is that “mental age” has a lot to do with life experiences and attitudes. Which is probably why many adults feel threatened by all these immigrants who can spout of 3-4 languages by the time they are 16.

  26. An example of the popular use of the term ‘mental age’ is in the magazine guide for programmes on UK television and radio next week. The preview for the TV medical drama ‘House’ states that the storyline is about “a gifted musician with a mental age of four.” A moral dilemma arises when scans show “that an operation could increase [his] mental capacity – but also extinguish his musical talent.”

  27. Here’s the thing about “feelings”. They CAN be, to some extent, moderated and controlled. It’s very easy, if one is of a mind to, to let inertia take over after an initial twinge of emotion and subsequently work oneself up into some big dramatic cascade of “I feel”, and run with it in whatever self-indulgent direction one fancies. It is a little less easy (or perhaps less entertaining), but still possible, to get out of one’s own head for just a second and realize that there are, ahem, other heads. And not in the look-at-me-I’m-a-do-gooder-considering-YOUR-feelings-too sense, but in the damn-that-would-suck-if-somebody-did-that-to-me sense.

    The danger in subscribing to the idea that emotions are uncontrollable is that folks can then propagate their own desires without regard to how it affects anybody else. A phrase that’s worked its way into popular speech is “I’m just saying . . .” – yeah, nobody “just says” anything (deliberately, anyway – for this purpose I’ll set aside tics and echolalia :P), especially when that something they’re saying is an operation involving “feelings”. There really is nothing wrong with “venting” per se if it’s in the spirit of, “hey, comrade, I’m kinda feeling like crap right now and it would really help if you just acknowledged that”. But if you (I lapse into collective “you” simply for clarity; I’m really not picking on anyone in particular here) expect another person to come along with you on your “feelings” cruise, and expression of your “feelings” involves quantifying the value or validity of someone else’s existence, or using that person to enhance how you think others will perceive you in relation to that person, then you must be prepared to accept some level of responsibility for that, because in that case you are, in fact, not just “feeling”, but ACTING.

    And if you adopt the attitude that because you can’t control how you feel and it’s only your actions that count, and that it’s some sort of superhuman act to do “the right thing” in spite of “feelings”, you can convince yourself that by acting in spite of your feelings you’re doing somebody a hell of a big favor, and that your “feelings” are actually right after all. (And that is different from doing the right thing in spite of fear of being unpopular, or in spite of the difficulty of the task, etc. That sort of thing IS honorable, but do not confuse it with what I’m describing in the following.) This can apply to race, disability, whatever: If your “feelings” tell you that a person you’re interacting with is not a “whole” person, or is somehow less understanding and deserving of a complete place in society, then (especially if you put more weight on “feelings” than on actual pragmatics) you may find yourself, I dunno, being simply superficially “nice” to that person and thinking that will suffice in place of treating that person like a complete human being. And then convince yourself that you’ve done something extra special for that person by simply throwing some polite formality (the “action”) their way, all the while in the back of your mind thinking – or, if you must, “feeling” – that this person is not really deserving of your politeness, because he doesn’t understand what’s going on enough to “get” it anyway, or matter enough for you to afford him any more decency. That “feeling” IS wrong.

    And I’m really frankly sick of this whole “good person/bad person” thing. I’ve known people I wouldn’t even consider labeling a “bad person” (and, in fact, there’s no such thing as a “good person” or a “bad person”, and judgment of that caliber is in any case best left up to God) who have done some pretty despicable things, and vice versa. A tactic I despise in an argument, if I’ve pointed out something someone’s done is wrong, is responding with “Fine, then. It’s all my fault. I’m such a ba-a-a-a-a-ad person.” Aside from the fact that I don’t buy that they really believe that they’re a bad person, I suspect they say it so I will respond with the standard “You’re not a bad person” . . . and perhaps they even hope that I’ll top that off with a detailed reassurance that they’re really a very good person, and oh, let me count the ways. And, of course, there are more sophisticated and cleverly disguised ways of incorporating that tactic, with fancier words and prettier gestures, but the tactic itself remains the same. And that very tactic is in fact an example of the use of inertia to escalate one’s own emotions – and to then use them to manipulate and excuse. Meaning, one can take the whole “low self esteem” (another pop label I think is bullshite) angle and work themselves into a funk, saying, either to oneself or directly to someone else, Oh dear, I AM a bad person, I did these bad things, I’m awful, I’m ugly, I’m worthless, I’m nothing (peeks around to see if anybody’s paying attention), nobody cares about my feelings, everybody’s picking on me when I was just saying . . . etc.

    That sort of decadent, masturbatory spiral is SELFISH. We all do it from time to time – there are no exceptions. And no, that doesn’t make us “selfish people”, and no, I’m not about to get into some Nietzschean hypothesis that we’re all inherently selfish and hey nonny nonny hoo hoo. But riding the momentum of one’s own emotions, especially when it is detrimental to another person in any way, is not cool. Go have a frustrated cry-fest in the shower if you must, but if you’re about to attribute your frustration to somebody else’s mere *being*, STOP IT.

    And if one is so wrapped up the magnitude of “feelings”, it’s really paradoxical to not consider this: If that person you’re referring to when you’re innocently expressing your “feelings” were to know what you’re saying about him/her, how would that make him/her “feel”?

    And if that person could hear you, would you say it in the same fashion?

    And if your response is, “Oh, it’s okay; he doesn’t understand what I’m talking about”, then THERE is your problem.

  28. Wow Evonne, it’s like you stepped into my head or something and put it into words.


    That sort of decadent, masturbatory spiral is SELFISH. We all do it from time to time – there are no exceptions.

    That we don’t get to decide we “don’t do things like that” (or “don’t do things like that anymore”) and then stop watching ourselves for this stuff, is something really really important.

    It reminds me of something Dave Hingsburger said in one of his books. I can’t remember the exact phrasing. But it was talking about disability prejudice. And it was saying, basically, “When you read this, don’t think ‘But my friend…’ or ‘But my relative…’ or even ‘But I’m…’ …every one of us harbors disability prejudice somewhere.” Only he said it better than that.

  29. I think that we could be dealing with sort of a semantics issue here. It seems possible for Susan to defend her “feelings” as emotions- as in, she really does have a right to acknowledge (though perhaps not publicly) her emotions of regret, sadness, guilt, longing, etc. However, her “feelings” as attitudes and beliefs- that her son would be better off NT, that his differences are the same as a difference of “mental age”, are a different story.

    My opinion on all this is that yes, there is some extent that (some) people (sometimes) can change their emotions. On the other hand, I do think it’s valuable to be able to recognize and accept your own emotions, even if they are ones you would prefer not to have. And basically, I think that as far as pure emotion is concerned, it really is the actions you take on those emotions that have moral import. One of those actions could be choosing to modify your feelings as best you can.

    Attitudes can also be changed, and I think there is more of a moral requirement to change attitudes. This is going by the definition of attitude as “attaching a positive or negative value to a person, concept, idea, or thing.” If you have a negative value associated with autistic traits, and you have an autistic son, then that may not be your fault. You may have been fed that value by society your whole life. But I do think you have a moral imperative to examine that attitude and try to change it if it hurts your son and/or other autistics, and contributes to a situation that violates their rights.

  30. maybe this has been said before and i skimmed over it in the comments, but… blogging about a feeling IS a kind of ACTING ON IT. and ditto to what someone said about if you don’t think Nat could read this, that makes it ok. i think it makes it worse. i think you (Susan Senator) are a nice person and all. but i still think you are wrong about this. and i am still glad my parents don’t have blogs where they could write what they *really* think about me. and i am going to be a real person whether certain -family and other- people in my offline life ever get it or not.

  31. PS: maybe this is just cos i don’t know him offline, but for the record i still think he looks like himself (autistic self and all) in the blurred photo. and who’s to say he isn’t laughing at something real all the time?! (something most people are missing)

  32. As others have said, yes, attitudes and beliefs (which some people insist on calling “feelings”) can be wrong. Bigotry is a pretty good example of that. I’ll take it even further and say, even if your attitudes are not hurting anyone else, like if you were a hermit who was totally isolated from all other humans and nothing about you could affect anyone else, it would still be wrong to harbor those wrong attitudes. I don’t expect anyone to immediately and totally remove all wrong attitudes from themselves. Even if I live to be 1000 and I work on it everyday, I will probably still never completely rid myself of the wrong attitudes that are deep down in me. But we are ethically obligated to work on it nonetheless–and progress can be made. Significant progress. It is worthwhile, rewarding work; it is the work of a lifetime; let’s all get to work on ourselves!

    Regarding mental age, I was reading about Ashley, the girl referred to by her parents as a “pillow angel”. I noticed many of the news articles about her say that her brain “stopped developing” around 3 months of age. Her parents’ blog says “She has been at the same level of cognitive, mental and physical developmental ability since about three months of age.”

    I wonder how they know this.

  33. Your responses show you still think this is about everyone’s feelings. It isn’t. It’s about the impact people’s words and actions have on the lives (not feelings, lives) of other people. Making it all about feelings is exactly why I referred to this as therapy-culture — it makes ethical discussion impossible by reducing everything to some sort of morally-equivalent illusionary “level” playing field where everyone’s “feelings” are equal. Please reread what we’ve actually written instead of just bouncing feelings all over the place. I don’t think anyone was talking about whether you were able to be “sensitive to Nat’s feelings”, and the impact of your words and actions go far beyond Nat.

  34. Anne wrote: “Re the photo of Nat, I don’t think perceived age is the real issue. It’s that he looks so normal, so non-autistic, so like other kids who do things that he doesn’t, like staying out all night and refusing to call, driving a car and getting a girl pregnant in the back seat, taking extreme risks to look cool in the eyes of his so-called friends, and telling his parents to stay out of his life. You know, the stuff we all dream of.”

    That was what I thought from the “Dream Child” post. It wasn’t about his mental age, it was about him not being normal. It might have been about wishing that they didn’t need to put so much into caring for him.

    As Amanda said, there are ways to get guys like Nat to live on their own. I don’t think this is a proper goal, necessarily, but it’s not a totally wrong idea, either. The idea that a young person must move out of his parents home by age 20 is culture bound, and not universal.

    I still think it’s hurtful to say in public: “this is the kid I wish I had”. Just like it’s hurtful to point out that girl you had is not the boy you wished you had, or the blonde you gave birth to is not the brunette you always wanted, or the pianist you got stuck with is not the harpist you always dreamed of.

    Those feelings might be there, especially if your friend has the kid you always wanted…”Look, Sharyl has the brunette, boy harpist I dreamed of…” but it’s totally inappropriate to put those feelings out on the Internet and attach the photos and names of real people to them.

    • Listen: I’ve disappointed my family in a number of ways, given the fact that, for all kinds of reasons, I didn’t turn out the way they thought I should’ve/could’ve/would’ve. Despite my having a history of developmental disabilities, I’m reasonably intelligent, know enough about lots of things to form opinions of, some of which are different than the rest of my family’s. I also live on my own, have a career that I love, own a home outright, pay taxes, have a Congo AFrican Grey Parrot, do martial arts (TKD), and like older movies, especially those in the 1960’s. I have one unusual passion for a certain movie: West Side Story, which is my all time favorite, and I go to see it whenever it comes to my area, or to a reasonably close place to my area.

      “Normal” is overrated.

      I’m just as capable of forming opinions on things, carrying on reasonably intelligent conversations, and sticking up for myself when the need arises, and being an A-hole if I feel that I’m being treated unfairly.

      I’m also capable of being nasty and not being very sympathetic towards people who knowingly act stupidly, or alienate the rights of other people by blocking traffic, shutting down MBTA stations, and blocking freeways with extremely fast-moving traffic on them.

  35. And it’s a form of hate. (Which is not an emotion, and not incompatible with some of the warm fuzzy feelings people mistake for love, and certainly not something to be indulged towards one’s loved ones.)

  36. Hmm, I may have added to some confusion by bringing up my ethical, um, deontology? I’m probably not using that word right. Anyway, Amanda is probably right to stress the practical implications of how people’s words (and also their unspoken attitudes) affect people’s lives, directly or indirectly. That’s the thing that’s most demonstrable. But I do cling to my ethical system in which some things can be wrong even if they don’t hurt anyone else, and I also like to talk about it a lot. It’s sort of off-topic though.

  37. Amanda, I do think some of what many people (including often you) say about “therapy culture” does not really match with the way many therapists operate. A lot of therapists do in fact advocate separating feelings from ethics and don’t judge all actions by how they make people feel. Therapists don’t all insist that friends shouldn’t help each other but just provide outlets for feelings. I’m not denying the existence of the culture you describe, and I agree it is derived from methods and ideas used in therapy, but I am not so sure “therapy culture” is the best name for it since it doesn’t represent what I think therapy ought to be like (and sometimes is like). Therapy is often anti-political and all about manipulation and making everything about feelings, but I see that sort of therapy as “not real therapy”, not the way it is supposed to be, incompetent therapy.

  38. I will say once again that I love my son, not only in the warm fuzzy sense, but in a primal gut-wrenching sense. What I posted had NOTHING to do with Hate. It was about being human and flawed. Many parents need to hear this because of the range of emotions they experience while parenting a challenging child. They have rights too, even though they have the “power.” The child has power, too, though he may not fully realize it. You have power here because you can express yourself publicly and you have quite a following. I’d like to understand your points but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. You do not understand me and I do not understand you and I think we should leave it at that.

  39. You could start by letting through my comments that talked about my having had personal experience on the other side of this, and that described what my actual views are as opposed to the views you and others have attributed to me. That might actually lead to some understanding, and even if you don’t end up understanding my points, others might if allowed to read them.

    I don’t have the comments I wrote to your blog saved anywhere. I am not capable of writing them out again. I put a lot of work into trying to explain what I actually meant by stuff while you and others said I meant something entirely different. Please post them. If I expected you to delete them I would’ve saved copies.

  40. correct me if i’m wrong, but i think amanda means hate in the sense of disrespect on the most practical level. hate like racism type stuff. like how a person could care about and feel love towards a person of a different race that entered their family by marriage or adoption, but still think they were a different kind of person because of the racial difference, and probably at some point act on that. not hate as in the emotion. a different meaning of it.

    also, writers might remember learning that love and hate (the visceral emotions) are close to each other, while there is a 3rd emotion, “desamor” in spanish, something like “unlove”, which is the opposite of both. but this is offtopic as i mean to talk about the practical, not the emotions.

    does any of this make sense?

  41. Yes, that’s closer to what I meant. And to me love and hate are not emotions at all, they just have often a lot of emotions tied up with them. But not always the ones people expect.

    And… I had three or four responses on Susan’s blog that were not allowed through.

    A couple of which dealt with the fact that I was called on a statement similar to Susan’s statement once. Because I was the one taught somewhere along the line to say that my older brother wasn’t really my older brother.

    And I was called on it a hell of a lot more harshly than Susan has been called on it by anyone here.

    And the person who did so was not the sibling of an autistic person. She did not have “the sibling experience”. She was however an autistic woman with a lot of younger siblings.

    Which would’ve made it possible for me to dismiss her in every single way and more that Susan is dismissing the opinions of people who disagreed with me.

    I could’ve said she was just too unpleasant and hostile to listen to, didn’t have the experience I did, was biased, etc.

    But I didn’t.

    I listened, I figured out what she meant, I decided I was wrong, and I changed my attitude.

    And that was someone who was a lot less polite with me than I’ve been in this discussion.

    I have never claimed that autistic people shouldn’t change in any respect ever, otherwise I would not have changed in that regard. Comparing changing harmful attitudes to changing neurology altogether at the most basic level is not a valid comparison. Every human being has to struggle against that stuff and I meant it when I said it before and I sure don’t exempt autistic people.

    And there’s also the fact that there are ways of discussing feelings openly that don’t treat them as okay. I could write that my older brother isn’t really my older brother. Or I could write about the attitudes that taught me to say that he isn’t really my older brother, that lead people to have these feelings, that damage people in real ways. And I know which choice I consider more ethical and to be helping more people. There is always a choice, there’s not always only one way to do things, and anyone trying to oversimplify this into “We shouldn’t talk honestly about our feelings” is dead wrong.

    But I wrote this in a lot more depth in those vanished comments and now I can’t get those comments back.

  42. My wife mentioned this post, Jan B., and this argument, to me. I just thought that I would put in my opinion. But first, I want to let you know where I’m coming from and what my qualifications are so that you won’t just say “You don’t understand”.

    First, I have ADD. My wife is dyslexic by the way, and I have lived most of my life with it, not knowing, just knowing that I was different somehow. I never had friends in school because socially and emotionally I was immature. Because I am older they didn’t have a diagnosis for ADD when I was a child. ADD and Autism are closely related. I have never done well socially. My mental age has always been much greater than my emotional age. I had the ability as a child to understand concepts that would make most people’s minds spin. I finally finished a BS in Physics. However, as a child and young adult, in fact, until I was diagnosed and finally understood myself a little better, I was emotionally immature. My chronological age, my mental age and my emotional age were three different things. So, don’t try to say that you are smarter than me and that I just don’t understand you. I have a disability and a degree in probably the hardest science on the planet.

    Second, I have been an advocate for disability rights for over 20 years. I helped to start Voices for Independence. It is a Center For Independent Living in Erie, PA. I sat on the board of directors for many years as did my wife. My former roommate, and my best friend, after my wife, was the chairperson for Pennsylvania’s Statewide Independent Living Council. She was on the White House lawn when the ADA was signed into law. I have marched on Harrisburg and Washington, DC for the rights of all people with disabilities.

    Third, I am a parent. I have one son that is Autistic, and a son and a daughter that aren’t. The girl is 3 years old. When I observe her behavior and juxtapose it with my Autistic son they are remarkably similar. Now, remember the Physics degree? I’m looking at this as a scientist. I am observing. He does not evidence the ability to control his emotions that the typical 7 year old would be able to. I think that most people would agree that the ability to control your emotions and not let them control your behavior would be a sign of emotional maturity, emotional age if you will.

    Fourth, I am also a teacher. I have observed many different people. Some of them were very wise for their age. Others were very immature. They showed different emotional ages.

    Finally, after reading your “About” section I can tell that you are very militant about fighting for the rights of the disabled. That’s good! But don’t fall into the trap of believing that everyone is your enemy and that no one else might have anything to contribute, or could ever understand whats going on. There are many people that want to help others but they might have ideas that you might not like.

  43. I have not been saying that I’m smarter than anyone. I’ve been saying that people have been taking very complex ideas that I and others are putting forth, and reducing them to sound-bites. Wrong sound-bites. That has nothing to do with intelligence, but it makes it impossible to have a conversation with someone.

    I don’t believe in chronological age, mental age, and emotional age. I don’t think these are useful constructs, I think they are incredibly harmful ones. I know there are plenty of disabled people who do indeed apply these concepts to themselves. There are plenty of women, even women scientists, even feminists, who will stereotype themselves along female stereotypes as well. There are even entire branches of things calling themselves feminism that seem to be reiteration of old anti-woman stereotypes only using them to put women on a pedestal instead of degrade us more straightforwardly, and I don’t agree with them or call the practice of that feminism either. And no matter what else women who subscribe to those things contribute to feminism, I’m not going to agree with them on that point.

    People can be both “wise” and “immature” at the same time, what do you call them, “two different emotional ages”? Since you’re both dyslexic and gifted do you consider yourself to have “two different mental ages”, one for reading and one for the things you’re better at?

    You haven’t really addressed a lot of what I’m saying.

    I’m saying that these ideas are harmful to some kinds of disabled people. I’ve given concrete examples of how they are harmful.

    You have replied to many things I have not written, anticipated me as saying many things I have not said, given a lot of credentials of various sorts, and topped it off by concluding that I must see the entire world as my enemy or something. Which I don’t. I just happen to think that sometimes some things are worth standing up for.

    Read the previous stuff in this post, the entire thread.

    Read the stuff about “bad people” and what’s wrong with seeing this as being about “good people” and “bad people”. Then please apply that to the whole “enemies” idea too.

    And my dad was an electronics technician at SLAC, I grew up around physicists, even Nobel prize winning ones. Being a physicist gives a person insight into physics, as far as I can tell. Generally a particular part of physics, at that.

    It has little bearing on this discussion, and if anything in this discussion seems intellectually elitist it’s the pulling out of that kind of thing as proof of understanding an unrelated concept. I have said that people don’t understand the point I’m making. It’s a point that is also made by many people who struggle really hard to learn things like physics.

    It’s no less valid for being made by people with intellectual disabilities, and I would say yes there are things many people I know with intellectual disabilites understand that you might not. This does not insult your intelligence or theirs, it’s just a fact. This is not about intelligence, it’s about whether particular concepts are understood.

    People in the developmental disability self-advocacy movement have done a lot more work on the concept of “mental age” being wrong than most of the sorts of people who end up working in CILs. And the fact that someone might have done really good work for a CIL does not negate the idea they might have some really damaging ideas about disability. CILs in fact have a pretty abysmal track record towards people with developmental disabilities, particularly people with intellectual disabilities, who bear the biggest brunt of the mental age myth.

    Observing two children and putting together anecdotal evidence on that basis doesn’t seem like a good example of the scientific method, either, even if you say it “as a scientist”. (But then it’s also, not physics.)

    It’s been difficult to write a response because you have so many ideas at once and so many of them have little to do with anything I’ve actually said, or even tacitly meant. It’s been hard to know where to begin and where to end and I’m struggling with language at this point.

    But no I don’t think you get what I’m saying, or where I’m coming from, you seem to have me pegged in a stereotypical role saying a stereotypical thing that I’m not saying. If you think that’s the same as calling you stupid, that’s really not my problem because that’s not what I’m calling you. If you think I see the world or you or bunches of people as useless or enemies because I disagree with you on this… read the thread. Read particularly the bit about when someone called me on the same beliefs I’m calling others on at this point.

  44. I’ve noticed something interesting in this discussion by the way.

    Most people who don’t think that what was said was okay, have been pretty clear on the fact that nobody’s perfect.

    We’ve been pretty clear on the fact that this is not about people being “bad people” or “good people” and that this isn’t a useful way to think about these things.

    We’ve been pretty clear on the fact that we ourselves are not exempt from the kind of self-indulgence we’re telling people to stay away from, that it’s something we fight in ourselves too.

    That we’re not immune to the same sorts of damaging actions and prejudices and so forth.

    And even so some people have taken this as an “enemies” thing, as us saying we’re smarter than them, or better than them, or something.

    When what we’re really saying is that everyone’s prone to this kind of crap, but if nobody speaks up about it then how will anyone know when it happens?

    I even tried to talk about the way I was taught to talk about my brother, and the way this was challenged, and the fact that I’ve been on the other side of this, in fact been on the other side of a tongue-lashing that made this thread look like nothing. And deservedly — my having been a disability advocate or “having the genuine sibling experience” or whatever else didn’t exempt me from responsibility for my words.

    And then it gets reduced to “You’re being mean” and “You hurt my feelings” and “How dare you say that someone like me doesn’t understand this?” and “You’re calling me stupid” and “Don’t treat everyone as your enemy” and “You don’t want us to be honest about our feelings” and stuff like that.

    And then we repeat, “You don’t understand, we’re not saying that, we’re saying this thing over here.”

    Wash, rinse, repeat.

    It was never about “enemies” or “bad people”, it was about a bad thing to do. Everyone does bad things to do, it’s an attribute of the human race. I’m sitting here in a room with the woman who called me on how I talked about my brother (who I was encouraged while growing up to believe had “stopped growing at the age of fifteen”) and we’re both incredulous that what for us was a single — if heated — conversation, is turning into this “How dare you insult us by saying we did something wrong?” thing on the net.

  45. I’ve never had the sense that Amanda has “fall[en] into the trap of believing that everyone is [her] enemy and that no one else might have anything to contribute…”

    I have more than one diagnosed disability and have a child on the spectrum. What I’m seeing posted in many places in terms of this debate is that those who are not parents shouldn’t be commenting (sorry, paraphrasing) and sentiments like that. I’m often reading these exchanges from a child’s perspective and not so much as a parent because I know what it’s like to have parents who want to have you fixed – and subject you to medical treatments and therapies they think will fix you. If my parents had done what some of the current bloggers do in revealing their children’s most-private things on-line and I had then discovered this when I’d gotten older, I may have not lived past that day of discovery.

    I had an experience similar by finding a cache of letters all about me and my supposed issues. What I found the adults discussing in the letters wasn’t even remotely what was going on with me, but in their minds they’d determined my past, present and future. I took that cache of letter and they’ve sat in a safe deposit box for a couple decades now. I’ve not looked at them since. I am not in contact with either of my parents or many of my relatives because of the way they trampled on my psyche. And, I don’t think about them or the past or what went down with any rancour, it’s just over because I’m not playing any longer.

    As for the therapy culture, I was in therapy, as were may of my family members at rather young ages. My mother thought everything needed to be revealed, especially about others even if it meant invading all they held dear. Her feelings, her views, her conclusions were always paramount. The problem was that she was unable to deal with her own faults, recognize how her own issues and prejudices colored every conclusion she came to. Also, she was not very logical or perceptive so her conclusions, even though she felt she was channeling Freud, were usually very off-base and always self-serving.

    I’ve been on-line for well over a decade and I don’t post anything personal about my child(ren). I never felt it was right, because of what I had experienced.

    It’s not so noble to admit dark feelings about others on a blog for the world to see. I don’t see how it truly “helps other parents”. These admissions, these dark feelings, are best left in the therapist’s office. If you’re not moving past these feelings and keep mulling them over, then change therapists or change meds, but more importantly please re-think about the future heartache it could cause others to put your “feelings” out there for the world to read about forevermore.

  46. I actually don’t think there are topics best left in the therapist’s office. But I do think that there are topics best handled with care in public if brought up at all, and suspect that’s close to what you meant anyway.

    And I do think there are plenty of ways to bring these things up that are not going to cause problems. But there are ways to bring them up that will cause problems, and knowing the difference can be really important.

    For instance, there is a difference between how I have brought up what I was taught to say about my brother in this thread, and just plain saying something like “I sometimes feel that my older brother isn’t really my older brother, he stopped really growing or maturing at the age of fifteen.” (Neither of which are actually true, both of which I’d been told at times.) They have a different impact on people. One might “validate the feelings” of some other siblings, but some feelings frankly aren’t worth validating, and I’d far rather do it the way I do it now.

  47. PS: i neglected to mention that the way i could imagine the example of unintended racist attitudes within a family is that maybe (although i can’t remember a real dramatic example) i have on occasions thought something similar about my husband, because we are from different cultures… and i have done the whole not-thinking-the-consequences thing in other situations, too. and yeah, everyone needs to be called on bad stuff when they do it. no matter if they are a decent person and good parent… or maybe *especially* if they are, and you think it’s worthwhile cos they might listen and change something in a useful way…

  48. Terms such as mentally handicapped, person with learning difficulties, mentally retarded, developmentally disabled are all politically correct terms to describe people who are regarded as being below normal intelligence. Though that doesn’t invalidate them.

    The etymological origin of ‘stupid’ is ‘numbed with grief’, and the common experience of ‘not knowing’ is anxiety producing. Most school children in Western societies undergo a barrage of tests. If they fail these tests they are regarded, or regard themselves, as stupid.

    I don’t know if the term ‘retard’ is being reclaimed in a positive, affirming sense in the way that queer or crip are.

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  50. No doubt great crimes have been committed in the name of ‘intelligence testing’. Although a little flowery SJ Gould probably gets close with the quote, ‘We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of opportunity to strive or even hope, by a limit from without, but falsely identified as lying within’.

  51. I’ve just started taking an assessment class for my clinical psych degree. I’ll be watching with interest as to how this kind of thing is being talked about, conceptualized, and applied in the academic setting– which is, I think, where change usually happens first.

    So far I’ve gleaned that “mental age” is not well respected as a construct, and that a lot of people are frustrated that the Wechsler tests (the ones used most of the time) don’t reflect current research about the nature of intelligence (e.g. multiple intelligences, ways of more clearly identifying what the test actually measures, etc.)

    I’ll keep you posted!

  52. I have Asperger’s and have been seeing a therapist who specializes in working with adults with Asperger’s. He does the mental age thing. He generally takes the age of his AS clients and cuts them in half. He goes by the idea that people of a given age act (or are supposed to act) in a given way. Sure some of the ways I have acted in the past might have been “immature”, but, he seems to be applying neurotypical standards on autistic people. It might be fair to expect a nurotypical adult to act in certain ways or have certain accomplishments (like a full time job). But the fact is, we aren’t neurotypical. So neurotypical standards shouldn’t apply to us. How is telling me that my emotional level is that of a child or teen supposed to help me become an independent adult?

    • In neurotypical people the brain tends to develop over the years at the same time as other neurotypical people and there for are able to act an thing like normal people of their age. When doctors talk about mental age or someone they tend to mean in comparison to the normally developed brain. If you’re not neurotypical (like me an you) your brain is physically different than neurotypical brians and therefor you are mentally younger (IDK about older) than your actual age. He appears to not know this.

  53. I have not read every post; I apologize if this has already been stated.
    The key aspect of mental age is that it does not work for most adults, because intelligence levels off in adulthood. However, in evaluating child development, mental age can be a very legitimate and useful concept. Sure, the theory of multiple intelligences is becoming more and more respected, and I personally believe it is valid. However, when applying mental age to a person, not generally, but to his/her specific cognitive functions (e.g. Johnny’s quantatative mental age is 7, his verbal mental age is 6, his spacial mental age is 10), this can easily account for multiple intelligences while utilizing the value of the mental age concept.
    I also believe mental age (again with specific designations for individual cognitive functions [preferably even MORE specific than the general ones I listed]) can be useful for dealing with adults with disabilities. I work with adults with disabilities (schizophrenia, MR, brain injuries, and many many others), and I am currently working on developing a proposed treatment option that bases cognitive therapy on mental age in various areas. Again, the key is being specific, rather than assigning one overall mental age to a person (which is either limiting or exaggerated).

  54. Steve: I think part of the objection that some people have to mental ages is that even if and when someone tries to be very careful and extremely specific in assigning “cognitive mental ages” to a given individual is that too many other people will not be so careful when THEY take whatever it is you say and interpret it. “Steve, the guy who works with disabled adults at the place my son goes to, says my son has a mental age of 6 to 10.” They’ll lose all the nuances and details that you try to attach to it (quantatitive mental age this, verbal mental age that) because they may not understand why those nuances and details are so critical. So they will further conflate cognitive development in a few specific areas with EMOTIONAL development and assume that because someone’s COGNITIVE “mental age” is between ages 6 and 10 that they necessarily need to have EVERYTHING geared to them at the age 6 to 10 year old level — the same toys, the same rules such as no sexual relations and no living independently, yada yada.

    A lot of people just don’t distinguish between cognitive processes (what a person is ready to process cognitively) and emotional (what they’re ready to deal with in terms of emotional maturity). Or experiential for that matter (what a person is ready to deal with because they have had enough personal experience to help them learn how). People miss the fact that even though a person may acquire certain cognitive concepts more slowly than most people and may need more intensive repetition before they get it, they may still acquire EXPERIENCE in personal relationships and other not-strictly-cognitive functions at about the same rate as anyone else. For example, they will not necessarily need to have that much more experience than anyone else at making friends in order to learn how to make more new friends in the future.

    Even in the specific ways you want to apply “mental age” I think may still run the risk of missing a great deal of nuance and complexity BOTH in what the people you work with actually understand and how they actually learn. “Johnny’s” verbal mental age may be 6, but what does that actually mean in pragmatic terms? In terms of vocabulary? In terms of syntax? Sentence structure? Ability to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end? Even “verbal skills” still covers a wide range of specific skills: skill in one may not necessarily be the best indicator of skills in the others, ESPECIALLY for people with learning differences. (And I believe many so-called “verbal tests” are actually vocabulary tests and may not necessarily do well at capturing other skills, such as the ability to read and grasp a passage even when one does not understand all the vocabulary in it–which was something I could do pretty well from a young age and still helps me today in understanding the gist of Spanish passages in which I have not yet learned a lot of the vocabulary). I would think that someone with cognitive impairments would be even more likely than a random person in the street to have specific skill sets that are all over the map even for skills that supposedly seem related so closely related that some people simply cannot imagine developing one without developing the other.

    Pinning a number on someone’s cognitive age in a specific cognitive skill set also fails to explain how the person learns best. It only tells you where they are now — not how they got there, and not how they can most effectively progress from there. The way they need to keep learning from here on may not necessarily match what a 10 year old with the same cognitive skill set would need.

  55. A big part of the problem is using the word “age”. That sets up the idea that lower test-scores make a person more childlike. Even if you attempt to add nuance, it still carries insulting implications.

    I know that if you were to describe my physical abilities that way, my “walking age” would be somewhere in the toddler range. That doesn’t make me childlike, or mean that I should hold someone’s hand when crossing the street. Me being an adult is relevant, and means different approaches. Similarly, someone who tests as having a vocabulary similar to the average eight-year-old doesn’t need to be confined to reading or discussing matters suitable for a child that age. But calling someone’s test score or ability measurement their “mental age” or even their “cognitive age” invokes the picture of a child, and helps reinforce the idea that a limited ability makes them “really” like a child. Even if that’s not what’s meant.

  56. And then there is another problem: Often the difficulty someone has with something is something that no person of any age normally has.

    I do not know any age when it is “normal” to, as I do, freeze frequently when walking, especially across certain kinds of lines, or to have feelings like knives or lightning or something are shooting up your legs whenever you take a step unless you brace your ankles. Or to often be able to walk or see where you’re going, but not both. And to have absolutely horrible stamina. Many of these things are experiences that most people will not ever have in their lifetimes, unless they become disabled in some way.

    So what “age” are things like that assigned?

    And I really suspect that scoring on a test a certain way is similar. There are many reasons for doing a certain amount of questions right or wrong, and they don’t have to do with age. So the age part just confuses the issue.

  57. The “age” that’s assigned to physical impairment, actually, is “old.” At the pool where I swim, the average chronological age is 70. Many of my fellow swimmers are experiencing pain when walking, inability to handle more than one sensory system at a time, etc.

    The irony is that our society expects “old people” to be impaired. Many people over 70 also expect this. Yet they also vehemently reject assistive tech (wheelchairs, walkers, notebooks) which would enable them to be more functional in the world — because they don’t want to think of themselves as “handicapped” or “cripple.” (Yeah, well, lots of the folks over 80 haven’t a clue what the term “disability”.)

    Which comes around to mental age again: at some point the dominant culture attaches a “too old to matter” label.

  58. Yes. I agree that the whole “mental age” is a very inconsistent, flawed, and destructive concept. I usually score at a mental age 2/3 my own. It’s rather interesting. People see me on one day, and they say, “She is so advanced and adult-like!” (I got this one mostly in elementary school). ON another day, some other adults see me and they say, “Shouldn’t she be in a special school?” ANd when I hear these statements, I have to wonder where they get their preconceptions from.

    It is as if they follow this formula:

    If a person acts in X way, then they must be of Y label, and be treated like Z. The more that X deviates from the established Norm, the more inferior label Y must be, and the more discriminatory and insulting Z treatment must be, or else X characteristics will never be eliminated, and we will have to deal with (gasp!) yet another unique person who contradicts our expectations. After all, we love to celebrate unique-ness and diversity – as long as it fits one of our checklist of “Accepted Deviations from Norm”.

    Why do people get so hung up on these labels? Few people even consider that it’s more ever than a matter of Special Ed, Gifted, or Normal (as much as I detest the non-statistical connotations of that latter word) – and how many people even consider that you can be more than one of them? All I know is that in growing up, I hated being called a Genius, I hated being called a Retard, and I hated the (purely theoretical) idea of being called Normal.

  59. I’m reminded of a song by Rush. I don’t know the name of the song, but part of the chorus is:

    Everybody’s got to deviate from the norm
    Everybody’s got to elevate from the norm

  60. I just think of Ann McDonald, who was assessed as “mentally three months old” and “severely retarded” until someone actually taught her to communicate.

    The entire concept is rubbish, and is based more on assumptions than facts.

  61. I find that the ‘childlike’ behavior can be a response to being treated like a child. I encountered examples of this in my work at the group home. There were two clients who were supposed to be disfunctional in certain ways. I would sit with them and just tell them what was on my mind – the way I would with another ‘normal’ adult. They may not have had the intellectual capacity to respond verbally to what I was saying, but they certainly had a strong and positive response to the fact that I was speaking to them in this way. They KNEW that I was speaking to them in this way. They understood the respect that I was offering. At the same time, my talking to them in this way was certainly a violation of the rules of professionalism that apply to staff, and a violation of the informal rules that people almost usually follow in their treatment of such people.

  62. Myth is the stories people tell themselves, and each other, about something. Often has a strong connotation of falseness, although, like all stories, there might be truth in parts of it.

    Fact is the ‘something’ that all the myths try to tell stories about (which may look totally different than the stories predict, to the point of unrecognizability).

  63. Howard: I would agree.

    I have in the past found myself giggling childishly in situations where someone was treating me like a child. It feels fake and not-me but it’s not always easy to shake. (“When one is choking, one should spit, but how to spit the hypocrite?” -from a poem Donna Williams)

  64. Pingback: 'Rain Man' has been a missionary his whole life - Page 4 - LDS Mormon Forums

  65. Pingback: The Myth of Mental Age | largertable

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