Among those of us who care deeply for and about people with developmental disabilities, I hope to hear emerge a new voice, ours, rising together for the benefit of all, harmonizing with reason, respect and hope, and transcending divisions, giving birth to a new era of creative cooperation.

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Saturday, September 9, 2017


In her very instructive opinion piece,  here,  Ivanova  Smith explains why she opposes "mental age theory."   She says: "Have you ever heard the phrase “that person has the mind of a five year old In an adult body. "For years, medical professionals have told parents of newly diagnosed Intellectually disabled people that they would mentally be children for their entire lives."  "Historically, so-called “mental age theory” has stripped people with intellectual and developmental disabilities of our dignity, our reproductive freedom and our parental rights. Age theory has also been used to strip us of the rights to make adult choices, such as buying alcohol and tobacco or having sexual relationships. "

Of course, labels hurt when they're  used inappropriately.   When I was at Antioch University, I argued with one of my degree committee members.  "I won't take that course in Developmental Psychology.  I won't take a course that teaches me to label people.   A psychiatrist, he argued back.  "You should take it so you can have an intelligent conversation with other professionals and be respected for your opinion."  "OK, I grudgingly conceded."  The course turned out to be pivotal in my eventual practice as a therapist.    So, last night, when I read  Ms. Smith's enlightening article,  I  felt inspired to reply:

"Thank you for explaining your hurt around this issue. It enlightens me about the background of employing mental age.

In my experience, as a developmental therapist, (working with people who are not considered disabled) it is necessary to meet a person where s/he is, developmentally, in order to help her or him move forward. My purpose is not to pin the person to a mental age forever. Just the opposite, it is to address them where they are and provide the appropriate responses to the needs of their current developmental age. My experience, as well as that of other developmental therapists, has been that only when a person is addressed at the age in which s/he is functioning, can s/he truly shift internally to their next stage of development. Also, it should be noted that a person can be arrested emotionally at one age, mentally at another and physically at still another. These are not fixed, but potentially fluid ages. Younger is not worse. Older is not better. (Pejoratives like “childish” should not be employed.) At one rate or another, everyone has a natural drive to move on to their next stage. In this regard, I wholeheartedly agree that each person needs and deserves support to move forward.

Now, moving on to my experience with people who have what we now call intellectual developmental disabilities: I’ve seen some very unhappy toddlers-in-adult bodies when the comfort of their cuddle toys was taken away because they were deemed too old for such toys. Also, with good reason do we carefully protect adults with early developmental mentation from running out into the street or playing with electrical sockets or knives. This does not mean that such people cannot progress to more mentally mature levels, only that we are honoring their current stage of development and the stage and rate of learning of which they are capable and which we have the skills to support.

I hope you can hear the caring and respect in the perspectives I’ve written about. I hope, too, that you and others can, in the future, hear such references without feeling demeaned or judging that another is being demeaned. In my view, to honor a person where s/he is, developmentally, is respectful and to assume s/he can do or be more in the moment than s/he can is disrespectful."

With great respect,

1 comment:

  1. Thank you,Saskia, for writing this.

    In all areas of life - school, career, athletics and sports, hobbies- there are ranks, steps or skill levels which one passes through to get to the next level. This is natural progression. In most areas unless one has mastered or at least made a passing effort, one is not able to proceed or progress. There could be many reasons for this.

    People do not excel in all areas of life and do not need to be an expert in everything they attempt to have enjoyment and meaning from it.

    This progression is also true with developmental, emotional and maturity stages. It is not "good" or "bad" but just is.

    It's vary unfortunate that people misunderstand this and feel hurt, threatened or discriminated against. When understanding and working with people we need to meet them where they are for understanding and growth.


Comments are encouraged. By sharing perspective, personal experience, both positive & negative, ideas, resources and support, readers can enhance each others&; understanding and we will all benefit.