Summary: Developmental Disorders

Enlightened treatment of retarded individuals began in the mid-1800s with the work of Edward Seguin. Within 50 years, however, institutions for the retarded had become bleak and depressing places, used to warehouse "undesirable" retarded people and keeping them away from the public. Attitudes began to improve again in the 1940s. In the 1970s and 1980s, many children with intellectual deficits were mainstreamed into regular public schools, often with good results. Adults with intellectual deficits were trained for jobs and often proved to be reliable employees.

Autism is a genetically based syndrome that can result either in severe retardation or milder handicaps. DSM-IV categorizes autism as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder. About 40% of autistic children never learn to speak or live outside institutions. The other 60% do learn to speak, and often they become productive citizens. An autistic savant is an autistic person with an exceptional skill. Usually these skills involve music, art, or mathematics.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is characterized by problems paying attention and concentrating on a task, as well as by restless activity. It most commonly affects boys. The drug Ritalin has been widely used-some say overused-to help people with ADHD. In some cases it provides dramatic improvement, but it has also been abused. In recent years another drug, Adderol, has become more common.

Learning disorders such as dyslexia affect a specific skill. Often a person is entirely normal except for one type of ability that is lacking. Dyslexia is a problem extracting meaning from written words. It can be a major handicap for students. Sometimes a person can find ways to compensate and overcome the effects of dyslexia.

An example of a specific learning disorder that has been analyzed and successfully treated involves discriminating fast language sounds such as "da" and "ga." A game-like therapy eliminated this information processing problem in a group of children. This shows the problem was not a defective brain but the absence of necessarily learning experiences. No doubt we are all learning disordered in various ways, because humans have so many potential talents, and nobody can be skilled in every possible way.


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