Public Attitudes Toward Special Needs Students as a Result of the DSM

Amanda Elizabeth Lentino


Although the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) is universally used in the field of psychology to diagnose individuals, it is more of a political document than a scientific one. In the original version of the DSM (1952), students with mental disorders were diagnosed solely on IQ scores. But who has the power to determine what IQ score is “normal?” The American Psychiatric Association (APA) decides who is sane and who is not, and they persuade the public to accept their claims as being objective (Caplan, 1995). Thus, as the eminent philosopher Michel Foucault (1975) argues, mental professionals create the discourse on mental disorders, and they define the roles of madness and normalcy, deficiency and intelligence.

In the first DSM, one was diagnosed as severely mentally deficient if he/she had an IQ score below 50. Part of the reason as to why the term special needs has a negative connotation is due to this abysmal score. Society and medical professionals only diagnosed severe cases of mental disorders. As the years progressed, the DSM gradually changed the criteria for being “mentally deficient” or having a “mental disorder.” In order to be diagnosed with profound mental deficiency, one must have an IQ score below 20. This new criterion adds to the negative connotation for special needs students. Although these students do not fit the criterion and may have incredible IQ scores, society erroneously holds the notion that people requiring special academic needs are severely deficient. This research paper shows how the DSM has shaped public attitudes toward mental disorders while it also criticizes the concept of IQ scores.


Asperger Syndrome; Special Needs; DSM

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© 2017 Journal of Student Research ISSN: 2167-1907