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,