The Exceptional Child

Mentally Deficient

Produced for the Educational Television and Radio Center by Syracuse University, 1969

Statement and Disclaimer from Thomas Neuville, Associate Professor, Department of Special Education, Millersville University


Look at that, you’re an idiot.

Ricky, don’t you ever say that word again. Michael, if you only knew… but you don’t.

Michael is a mentally deficient child. His limitations not only curtail his own adequacy, but present serious problems to those who love him.


A child with differences. It is our hope that through these programs we might better understand this child and help him.

Because of his mental deficiency Michael presents not one but many serious problems. Because of his inabilities they often lead to bitter feelings of disappointment and frustration in his parents. And present a tremendous, continuous, tiring challenge to the understanding of his normal brothers and sisters.

I'm Ed Jones, your host on these programs, and today we're going to consider the problems, the difficult and complex problems, that face the child who is mentally deficient. A child who will never share completely in the relationships so satisfying and meaningful to normal children and adults. But a child who is trainable and can learn to perform in part by himself.

Last week we considered the problems of the child who is mentally handicapped, a child who is slow to learn but a child who can attend school. And can function in life without continuous supervision. The mentally deficient child however, a severely retarded child, faces far more restricting limitations and will always require extensive and special care. His parents in most cases will be more acutely aware of problems he presents but may find it far more difficult to face them realistically.

Here to help us to a better and cleared understanding of the problems that face the mentally deficient child we have Dr. Rudolph J. Copobianco, Director of Research in Special Education and Rehabilitation at Syracuse University and Assistant Director of Research and Mentally Retarded Children for the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene.

Severe mental retardation can occur in any family. It seemly has no preference for race, color, social, economic, or educational background. The medical causes for some of the diseases which produce this condition are known. However, there is a large segment of the retarded population for which the causes, which produce the condition, are still unknown.

The mongoloid child for instance, perhaps makes up the largest single segment of the retarded population for which the cause remains unknown. Many theories have been proposed as possible explanations for mongolism. Older age mothers, alcoholism, extreme tension, defective glands, and other factors. None however, have offered sufficient evidence to be considered as causal. Since mongoloids comprise from 33 to 50 percent of the trainable children enrolled in special classes, research into this important area is sorely needed.

A second large group of mental retardates is loosely categorized under the heading brain injured. Various types of behaviors are characteristic of this group. Some are hyperactive. Others passive or inactive. Some repeat behaviors time and time again.  Others have abnormal fears and anxieties. Inappropriate behaviors seem to be characteristic of this group. As also is lack of attention span.

Contradictory behaviors characterizes the severely mentally deficient child. What may appear to be independent, thoughtful behavior is actually aimlessness and inactivity.

To the brain-injured child, minor insignificant things often draw her full attention.  This involvement with minor details in such a child is actually used as a diagnostic aid in the discovery of brain injury. Aimless though it is, she is focusing all her limited attention on a discarded piece of scotch tape attached to the table.

Suddenly, a new stimulus, the light meter catches her attention. But even when she handles it she quickly looses interest. Short attention span for any given activity is a characteristic of brain- injured children.

On the advice of the teacher, one of the other girls tries to coax Edith into some cooperative activity. But, inactivity seems to be much more important at the moment.  Attempts to stimulate her into more constructive play go unrewarded. Even the teacher is not successful all of the time. Apparently Edith wants to be left alone to her own devices.  Trying to stimulate her into co-operative play activities doesn't work at this time.

Brain injured children however do not always behave in a passive manner.  The seeming desire to be on move occurs from time to time. Unpredictable as her behavior may be, this child does follow a rather set pattern from passive inactivity to meaningless hyperactivity. The nervous, almost frantic waving of her hands is not due to stimulation of her interests. But perhaps is due to uncontrollable influences within her brain.  Apparently such movements as the pacing back and forth and the waving of the hands is just as aimless as the passive behavior Edith showed at the table with the discarded piece of scotch tape.  During her hyperactive state, she ignores the other children and their play and other points of interest in the classroom.

Some trainable children will be cared for in the home. Barring any serious difficulties in self control, barring any chance of danger to normal brothers and sisters, or barring the complete lack of ability to learn some of the simplest of self care behavior, the child may safely be kept at home.

Under constant supervision, he may make an extremely limited adjustment provided the advice and help of professionally trained personnel is available. Many communities provide an alternative to home care in the form of private or public day schools. These schools attempt to train children in the simplest requirements for everyday living; self help activities, limited socialization and mental hygiene.

For the benefit of parents, brothers and sisters, it may be more advisable to place a child in a state school for the mentally retarded. Here he will receive 24-hour care and supervision by competently trained personnel. Most trainable children adjust better to this type of environment where they are not expected to compete with children of higher levels of intelligence and abilities.

Which of these situations is chosen rests entirely upon the unique situation, which presents itself to any one family. In any event, this child will never be self-supporting. He will never function in an independent environment. He will always need constant supervision and care, especially in the home where close relationships often lead to frustrations and misunderstandings.

Home care may prove to be extremely trying for other members in the family. A natural rivalry between brothers and sisters is unfairly magnified when one of the children is severely retarded.

In an attempt to shield and protect the retarded child, parents often unwittingly display unfair behavior toward their normal children. The reaction of this type of treatment may many times produce in the child a feeling of being unwanted or unloved. Perhaps this may be a step on the road to future maladjustment.  But realizing the incompetence of the trainable child, the parent is often forced into the decision of favoring him in any competitive situations.

The strain placed upon the mother in the home is often unrecognized and unappreciated. But similarly, the father, as the breadwinner, expects some quiet relaxation when he returns from his day's labors. The effects of such mutual fatigue often result in petty arguments between husband and wife, which may lead to severe marital discord.

Michael's in bed; for how long, I don't know. Last night he got up at three o'clock in the morning and went all over the house causing havoc.

He'll be all right dear.

He'll be all right dear. You can say that. You're sleeping while he does these things.  It's no problem to you.

Well I'm sorry. Virginia. if I have to sleep a little in order to go out and support this family.

But when he does these things at night I have to get up with him.  Jim, I can't take much more of this.

Now Virginia, we have to be patient, it'll work out all right.

It will work out all right. That's all you ever say.  And what about Freddy?  He's no help at all; all he does is tease Michael. You'd think he'd understand at least a little.

Well now, I'll see if I can get Michael in a school for the day and then you'll be relieved of some of it.  Now I know it isn't easy and I don't like it any better than you do. But, well, it isn't my fault things are the way they are.

Is it mine?  And how can he go to school?  He's eight years old and he can't dress himself. He can't play with the other children.  He can't even write his name.

Mothers and fathers of severely retarded children recently formed parent groups which help to establish state laws regarding the training and care of trainable children.  Some groups establish private schools for their children, hoping to ease the home tension, which result from constant supervision. Legislation is some states provide for special classes for trainable children in public schools. The parents feel that these classes provide the necessary instruction and guidance for at least partial adjustment while they themselves can supply the security of a home and family background.

In areas where public school classes have not been established, parent groups have been instrumental in organizing, financing, and operating private day schools for their children.  Often, professionally trained personnel are employed to assist the parents in the operation of these classes. The goals of a training program include for these schools partial self-sufficiency in the areas of self-help, personal grooming, limited work experience, social adjustment, and occasionally a few semi-academic skills. Unlike the public schools where facilities are provided for the travel of children, transportation for these children must be the responsibility of the parents themselves. Token tuition charges are based on a sliding scale in accordance with the ability of the family to pay.

Mary is a mentally deficient child. She attends a private school for trainable mentally deficient children. The school was conceived and financed and is operated by a parent group dedicated to the care and training of mentally deficient children.

A tape recorder is used as part of the regular school day to encourage and improve speech, increase vocabulary, teach children to follow directions, and encourage communication. As a result of these recordings, the teacher has a permanent record of the speech improvement in the children, a file of new words learned for their vocabularies, and a summary of their learning's in the area of communication. When these recordings are played back for the children, they react enthusiastically to the reward of hearing their own voices.

Individual cards are shown to the children during the speech lesson to elicit language from each individual child. Although some of them may not be able to pronounce the words in question, it's an aid for future communication; to differentiate the sounds of the various words and to be able to understand the word.

The teaching and practice of motor control is accomplished through many techniques, one of which is the use of the stairs. Susan, one of the set of twins enrolled in the class, manipulates the stairs haltingly, step by step, like a normal three year old in spite of the fact that she is over eight years old at present. Because of past failure with physical activities, she fears this task unless there is immediate supervision by the teacher. Many of these children are extremely retarded in physical development as well as mental development, whereas others have fairly good coordination for their age level.

Here's a way during the regular school day to teach self-help activities to the children, to help in the socialization process and to ease the situation at home. It's Joan's turn today to pass around the paper napkins. This not only helps improve motor coordination but it also gives the child an opportunity to learn some of the social graces.

One cookie and one cup.

One cookie and one cup. Repetition is one of the most basic of all teaching techniques for this type of child.

One cookie and one cup.

Regardless of teacher control, accidents do happen.

Tommy's curiosity is aroused. In what appears to us as a sign of sympathy, is merely an expression of curiosity.

Marie, apparently unconcerned, continues chewing on her cookie. Even though Tommy and Marie are both identified as Mongoloids, their reactions to the accident are totally different.

There will be many more accidents of this sort in the future before these children, in their limited way, learn to use these self-help activities in their own homes, which would partially reduce some of the burden placed on their mothers.

Classes in state schools are set up in a manner similar to private and public day schools. The teacher in this classroom uses the bulletin board to display work done by the children. They recognize and take pride in their own finished products.

The teacher of the trainable mentally deficient is many things to her children. She may represent mother, sister, nurse, and teacher. As their teacher, she will try to help them understand and appreciate these books available to them.

While these children are physically between 11 and 14 years of age, their books and toys would normally be used by much younger children. The severely mentally deficient are extremely limited in what they can learn. What they do learn requires a long period of time. Here, the tying of a knot is a relatively outstanding accomplishment for a trainable child and demands many hours of instruction and practice.

Frequently, the teacher encourages one or two of the children to get together on a certain project. In this case, the children are building a snowman with construction paper. A task commonly found in kindergarten and first grade levels. This too is a relatively high performance level for trainable children at this age.

Yet other activities, such as the processes of communication and socialization, they may not achieve such high levels. And ever here, where the performance is relatively high, the amount of time consumed in the process in considerably more than would be necessary for a normal child of kindergarten age. Though the child can follow the outline, previously prepared by the teacher, the process is extremely slow. Occasionally the child may nip her finger with the scissors because of the inadequate muscular control present.

Pasting too is done in a very primitive fashion. Jean makes no attempt to spread the paste around the borders of the circle. For her, it is an achievement to have the glue even flow from the bottle. When their snowman is completed and the teacher holds him up for approval, the children's sense of accomplishment is just as enthusiastic as a younger child's. But, this will encourage them to attempt even more difficult tasks.

Simple homemaking tasks make up a good portion of the school day for the older girls. Eventually, these simple competencies may be put to practical use in the sewing and weaving shops within the institution where rugs, embroidery, and nick-knacks are made and sold to the general public.

Learning to be responsible for some personal, everyday chores is also encouraged in the classroom. Using a simple doll bed, the routine mechanics of bed making may be transferred to the ward in which the child lives.

Some of the older girls may eventually be put to work helping some of the even less fortunate children in their daily routines on the wards. It seems as though Betty can do this very well. But this simple daily routine represents the result of many weeks of teacher demonstrations, repetitions, and practice.

Some of the tasks are not directly related to routine. Regular playing cards afford the children an opportunity to match colors, recognize numbers, and improve motor control. Even simple tasks like placing playing cards within a box, take more that the usual amount of time and practice.

Trying to repair a broken box would be an impossible task without continued encouragement and close supervision by the teacher. Patience is the key word for such activities and this patience is not restricted to the children alone. The teacher of severely mentally deficient children must gage her goals in accordance with the limited competencies of the children. Time after time, the teacher must repeat even simple directions before success is experienced.

Homes, private day schools, and institutions all provide certain advantages and disadvantages to the severely retarded child and to his family. The home provides the immediate security of family life but it may also present problems of adjustment for the family. It may lead to marital discord. It may lead to feelings of insecurity in normal brothers and sisters. It will be extremely difficult for the retarded child for he is not able to compete with his normal brothers and sisters.

The private day school allows the parents relative freedom during the school day. It also gives the child a more effective education for his limited abilities. But differences in the type of care and training between private day school and home may lead to frustration for the child and disappointment for the parents.

It is often difficult for a parent to accept the idea of severe mental retardation in her child. Parents may feel that they are shirking their responsibilities or rejecting their child by placing him in an institution. But institutions do have complete facilities for the care and training of such children, which would be impossible for parents to provide.

The trainable individual will never be able to function without supervision. Plans must be made even by parents who keep their child in the home to ensure eventual care when they are no longer able to provide it.

Throughout her life, Edith, like other trainable children, will receive endless hours of care, training, and patience. But despite these things, her level of achievement will never be much more than it is today.

Every child, no matter how handicapped, deserves society’s respect as an individual and society’s help to achieve the maximum of his potentialities. The common goal here is to train the mentally deficient child to further his acceptance, his adjustment, and his usefulness. And to develop his capacity as much as possible within his limited environment so that he may take his place in the world wherever it may be, however restricted.

With understanding parents, brothers, and sisters; with special education, with a society that will accept him and limited though it may be, recognize his value as an individual; the mentally deficient child can move with, some degree, towards some degree of meaning and satisfaction in life. However, it is up to all of us to do whatever we can to achieve a realistic adjustment. For mentally deficient children are as much a part of our society as any other children. And our happiness is in part dependent on theirs.

Next week we shall try to understand the relationships of the child who is partially seeing. Remembering that a child with a handicap is yet a child; an exceptional child with a life that may be restricted, sometimes even distorted. But one which can grow and continue to grow towards some degree of fulfillment.

As we know more about the growth and development of children with handicaps, we will be able to help the exceptional child more in his quest for happier more secure relationships in life. In the hope that if he cannot completely eliminate his handicaps, he shall effectively reduce the restrictions they cause.

A child is born. New life begun. A life, which may be exceptional but need not be without some degree of achievement and happiness.

This is National Educational Television.