Mental Retardation and Autism
July 26, 2023

Mental Retardation and Autism

Note: The term “mental retardation” is synonymous with “intellectual disability.” While the former is slowly losing favor to the latter, we have kept the use of “mental retardation” for the sake of outreach, as the term is still widely used by families

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how individuals communicate and behave. It is known as a Spectrum Disorder (Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD) because there is a broad spectrum of symptoms and their severity among people with autism. In this sense, ASD is an individualized disorder—while there are general symptoms, their onset, severity, and presentation are unique for each person. Mental retardation is characterized by the slow development of motor skills, language skills, social skills, and occupational skills. Individuals with mental retardation score below-average on intellectual capacity tests, specifically having an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) score of 70 or below. ASD will also have other disorders, like ADHD, language disorders, or mental retardation as comorbid diseases.

Are Autism and Mental Retardation the Same?

In short, no. ASD can coexist with other disorders, including mental retardation, but being diagnosed with one does not mean a simultaneous diagnosis of the other. In general, children with ASD do not have diminished cognitive functioning and can score average to above-average on intellectual capacity tests. However, children with autism do struggle with communication and learning behaviors. They may have limited verbal skills,may not respond to verbal prompts, or they may show a general disinterest in the world around them, all of which coincide with the indications of mental retardation.Mental retardation is not an offshoot or result of autism. Rather, autism presents more often in people with mental retardation (around 70% of children with mental retardation also have autism). While children with mental retardation often exhibit “autistic behaviors,” they may not manifest all of the symptoms and often have others that are unique to mental retardation.

Criteria for Diagnosis of Mental Retardation

The signs of mental retardation appear at an early age. In order to diagnose mental retardation, the person needs to be below the age of 18 and show significant developmental delays. A health practitioner will first rule out any hearing or neurological disorders and may perform imaging tests to look for structural problems in the brain. If the child struggles with adaptive behaviors, like communication, interactions, and self-care, and has a low IQ, a diagnosis of mental retardation is likely.Diagnosing mental retardation in individuals with autism can be tricky since they have problems with fluent speech, eye contact and sensory problems. However, the standards for intelligence tests employ skills like answering questions, following directions, and identifying items, which children with autism learn later or through therapeutic intervention.Therefore, it is not unusual for a child with autismto perform poorly on an IQ test early on than actual scores, only to have their IQ jump as they get older.

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Levels of mental retardation

The severity of mental retardation varies from person to person. He or she will fall into one of the four following groups:

Mild mental retardation

About 85% of people with mental retardation fall into this category. They will have IQs ranging from 50 to 70 and may have trouble speaking. Despite these difficulties, people in this group can learn motor development, do routine work, study, have jobs, and participate in their communities.

Moderate mental retardation

People with moderate mental retardation will have IQs ranging from 35-55. They may be nonverbal or have noticeable difficulties with language and communication. Without specific intervention, these individuals will struggle with motor development and self-care. Individuals in this group can learn how to read, write, and develop basic math skills. With specialized training and therapy, they can go on to hold low or moderate-skill jobs.

Severe mental retardation

These individuals are characterized by IQ levels between 20-40. They show significant difficulty with or even lack motor skills. While they can develop low-level speaking and communication, they will develop these skills much later than their peers. These individuals will need care for their entire lives.

Extreme mental retardation

Only 1-2% of people with mental retardation fall into this category. Their IQs will be below 20-25. These individuals have limited or nonexistent motor skills, are unable to understand instructions, and will be entirely dependent on others for daily life and care. Extreme mental retardation is often due to a physiological problem, like a brain injury or malformation. Because of this, epileptic seizures, visual and hearing impairments, and motor limitations are common among this group.

Extraordinary Abilities in Individuals with Autism

As research expands, autism is shedding many of its negative connotations. Many people with autism go on to lead successful (and famous!) lives in every type of industry. They are actors, entrepreneurs, inventors, teachers, doctors, you name it. American professor of animal science, Temple Grandin, is one such individual, and she has dedicated her time and resources to promoting education and awareness about ASD.

“Without autism, people would still be sitting around the fire in the caves today. Without autism, neither Silicon Valley exists, nor can there be a solution to the energy problem.”- Temple Grandin

Listed among Time Magazine’s 2010 list of 100 most influential people in the world, Grandin asserts that many of today’s scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley have autism. She goes on to state that people with autism are successful graphic designers, computer scientists, photographers, software engineers, industrial designers, mathematicians, and computer programmers.

Computer Applications Providing Educational Support

Early intervention and intensive therapy and education are crucial components for success in children with autism and mental retardation. With appropriate, individualized treatment plans in place at an early age, these children have a better chance of developing any lagging skills and catching up with their peers. Otsimo is a free educational platform that allows your child to learn through play anywhere on a mobile device.With two years of uninterrupted play, Otsimo has helped children with autism get accepted into public schools at the rate of about 90%.


Last Updated: 12 August 2021


This article is examined by Clinical Child Psychologist and Ph. D. Researcher Kevser Çakmak, and produced by Otsimo Editorial Team.

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This post does not provide medical advice. See Additional Information.