I often find myself amazed by some of the comments and questions I get surrounding individuals with intellectual disabilities.  Do people still think that way?  I then have to take a step back and remind myself that working with this population, learning the history of the disorders and reading the latest research is my passion, and while some do share my interest, the whole world does not.  People are not ignorant for asking these questions; the ignorant individual is the one who does not take the time to teach, instruct and dispel the myths and misconceptions associated with their passion.  This month, I hope to dispel and explain a few of the most common myths associated with individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Myth:  Individuals with Autism, Down Syndrome and other Intellectual Disabilities have physical as well as mental disabilities.
While many individuals with Intellectual Disabilities do experience physical handicaps throughout their lives, it is more often due to a lack of care and attention to their health and wellness rather than the intellectual disability.  The physical challenges faced by individuals with Intellectual Disabilities, such as obesity, heart disease, and poor muscle tone, can often be prevented or at least delayed (just like the rest of the population) by increasing physical activity and improving nutritional habits. Lack of health and wellness education and available resources are the biggest obstacles for physical condition within this population.
Myth: Individuals with Down Syndrome only live to be in their twenties.
This is probably the number one comment I hear and one I hope quickly dissipates!  While many, many years ago this was the case, the average life expectancy today for individuals with Down Syndrome is age 55 with many living into their sixties and seventies (www.nads.org).  Life expectancy continues to improve as more attention is focused on their physical capabilities, and health improvements.
Myth: There is an Autism epidemic
This is another comment I often hear and one that you will repeatedly see in news headlines.   Yes, the number of individuals diagnosed with autism has increased over the past twenty years, but I am not convinced it is because of a ‘sudden outburst’ of cases.  Some facts to consider:
-The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders) did not include a diagnosis of autism until 1980.
-Until then, those who had ‘autistic-like characteristics’ were diagnosed as schizophrenics.
-In 1994, the DSM increased the spectrum and diagnosis of autism to include Asperger’s Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder otherwise Not Specified (PDD-NOS) (www.autism-pdd.net)
Therefore, in the eyes of many in the field of psychology there is not a surge in cases, but rather a broadening of the diagnostic criteria, which has lead to a greater number of individuals diagnosed with Autism every year.  Additionally, this disorder has been given more media attention than other Intellectual Disabilities, which has resulted in greater population awareness.