Of the many misconceptions about learning and developmental disabilities/differences, the one that seems to stick the most powerfully is that they are forms of mental illness.
|The Kennedy family during a happy moment, before
Rosemary’s institutionalization and lobotomy.
She’s the young lady on the far right.
By Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy
Presidential Library and Museum,
Boston. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
To get one thing clear before I go any further: there’s no shame in having a mental illness, of course. It happens, and those who face those struggles are incredibly strong to do so.
That doesn’t change the fact dyslexia, autism, ADHD and other associated neurological differences don’t fall into that category, regardless of the stubborn belief that still prevails.
Part of the problem is that, historically speaking, those with more severe forms of autism and LD used to be grouped with people struggling with forms of mental illness. The “experts” of the 1800s and early 1900s had no other frame of reference with which to work, so behavioral problems stemming from the frustration that comes with neurodiversity were put under the mental illness umbrella.
People like Rosemary Kennedy, who I wrote a bit about here, were subjected to lobotomy, isolation and institutionalization, because of their difficulties. Had they been born today, their treatment would have been dramatically different, and probably more effective.
However, as the various sciences progressed, and more about the human brain was discovered, it became clear that our unique brands of wiring aren’t due to any sort of illness. It’s just the way our brains are formed.
Mainstream society seems slow to embrace that change in perception, though. I still see dyslexia addressed as a sickness from time to time, which isn’t the case. It can be hard to live with, but it’s not something that can be, or needs to be, “cured”. The same can be said for other LDs, autism and ADHD, depending on who you talk to.
Personally, I wouldn’t give up my dyslexia, even if it does give me problems from time to time.
The real problem with referring to these neurodiversities as mental illness isn’t so much anything against people with mental illness so much as the issue of getting the right sort of assistance.
Drugs do no good for people with true LD, but they can be of great help to someone with mood disorders. When LD is grouped with those disorders, however, it’s possible for improper treatment to be implemented. A person with LD can also have a mood disorder, but treating the mood disorder without implementing the right teaching methods won’t help with problems coming from the learning difference.
One of the better directions I’ve seen news stories and the like leaning towards is putting more emphasis on the positive side of LD, autism and associated neurologies. There are gifts that come with the struggle, after all, and those must be acknowledged.
Mental health is a vital issue that needs a great deal of work, but grouping learning and developmental differences under the same umbrella won’t help anyone.