jenna, photo of a severely mentally handicapped young girl looking very intense

Special Children

by John and Ian Locking

This site contains essays about the author's long experience of working with special childen as a clinical psychologist. By 'special' I am somewhat euphemistically referring to children with emotional, behavioural, communication, and learning problems, not to children with unusually high abilities, not to those at the upper end of the normal distribution curve.

We are mainly talking about s.l.d. children here, although we do discuss some cases who were even more handicapped, (and might have been placed in the 'idiot' category in former days), some m.b.d. cases and some e.b.d. children.

Some definitions of terms

'profound mental handicap'

The I.Q.'s are below 20.
This corresponds more or less to the old category of ' idiot '


children with severe learning difficulties.
The I.Q.'s are in the 20 to 35 range.


children with moderate learning difficulties.
The I.Q.'s are in the 35 to 50 range.
This corresponds more or less to the old category of 'imbecile'

'mild mental handicap'

The I.Q.'s are in the 50 to 70 range.
This corresponds more or less to the old category of 'feeble-minded' or 'moron'.


The I.Q.'s are in the 70 to 80 range.


children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
Their intellectual level is unspecified

These are not hard and fast definitions, it would be anal to be pedantic and overconcerned about precise figures.
Some children with whom I worked, and whom I discuss, were in fact in the category below the s.l.d. range, as defined here; they had IQ's below 20 and would have been called ' idiots ', in former days.
Associated with the very low intelligence of the s.l.d. child there is often

1. some degree of brain damage or dysfunction.
2. a particular difficulty with verbal communication, with little or no speech. This is obviously due to the fact that verbal abilities constitute a very high level skill, and these children do not have the mental ability to develop them, or at least not to any great extent.

What are the dominant drives of these children? The answer is fairly obvious
1. Basic biogenic drives, for food, drink, warmth
2. For attention, and affection.
3. For sex.
Note here that the type of sex reflects the physical level of development, and the mental psychosexual level. So a child's interest in sex may only be a sort of infantile interest in touching and looking at genitalia, while the choice of sex object might also be appropriate to the mental level.
4. For control over their environment. (As an illustration of this drive check out the discussion of the interesting case of Helen P.)
5. etc.

To use psychoanalytic terminology, (not popular nowadays, but I am more interested in truth than fashion), we might say that in the s.l.d. child
the id is at a more or less normal level and strength of development, the child has more or less the same biogenic need drives as anyone else
the ego, the ability to deal with the real world, is weaker, of course, than normal.
the superego, or perhaps self concept, as a higher function, is relatively poorly developed.
So the s.l.d. boy might play with himself in the lounge of his living unit, a relatively public place with many people around, not because his sex drive is stronger than normal, but because the normal inhibitions against engaging in that sort of behaviour in public are week or absent. His ego, being relatively weak, might not enable him to understand that he might get into trouble by doing this, while his superego does not provide him with a sense of guilt or shame, or his self-concept with the feeling that in so doing he is behaving in a way which conflicts with his idea of himself, e.g. as 'a nice boy'.
Similarly the s.l.d. girl might engage quite freely in sexual acts, again not because of any particularly abnormally high strength of sex drive, but because of a deficit in the superego, or the self-concept, (wherein she might have an idea that 'good girls do not do these things', a desire to be a 'good girl', and a belief that she is, or might very well be, or could quite easily become, a 'good girl')
Such acts include, as well as actual sexual behavior, sexual exhibition such as the teenage s.l.d. girl who exposes her breasts, or genitals, in the unit lounge where adult males are present.
The same consideration applies to non-sexual acts which incidentally involve the exposure of the child's private parts, e.g. the child who drops her pants and knickers in the classroom or living unit as a way of asking to go to the toilet, or of asking for her wet knickers to be replaced with clean, dry ones.
(Such behaviours used also to be seen in persons, not mentally handicapped, [at least not originally], suffering from schizophrenia, untreated by psychotropic drugs, i.e. before the 1950's. So the case of the hebephrenic young woman washing all the clothes she had just been wearing in a washbasin of a public toilet).

Personality variables
Do these children vary in personality traits, and where they do, in what traits do they vary?
1. We might look at data from developmental tomes which tell us how very young normal children vary, to give us a clue here. The first one is level of activity. Such a personality trait would be associated with the 'D' factor in Cattell R. Cattell was a famous British psychologist well known for his work in the field of personality testing's personality questionnaires, and is seen in an exaggerated form in ' A.D.H.D. ', (attention deficit hyperactive disorder).

A personal view

This site is partly about practical, sensible, tested methods by which one can teach and train the subnormal individual important real life skills, and partly about accurate and honest original descriptions of some aspects of their behavour.

(For the practical, down to earth approach I have to thank my one time boss Dr. H.C. Gunzburg, a pioneer in the field of mental subnormality who stressed the importance of 'social education').

Here are no autistic prodigies 'trapped behind panes of glass', no exotic syndromes, or magic cures!
There are only mentally handicapped people, truthful observations on their behaviours and tested methods to foster their communication.
You may love terms like 'Autism', 'Asperger's syndrome' etc and detest ones such as 'mental handicap', 'mental retardation', etc.
But a change of name in psychology rarely if ever reflects a change in the concept, certainly not a denotative change. It is used to try to get away from the effects of years of perjorative use of the terms concerned
Are you a parent desperately searching for a diagnosis that pleases you and saves your face, and maybe allows you to get the sort of education you think your child deserves?
Your hard-won 'diagnosis' may ultimately come back to haunt you, your child and the carers who have to deal with him when you finally have to admit defeat, and want him to enter a special school on a residential basis, when he is no longer a cute little boy or girl but a large, aggressive, truculent, spoilt, adolescent or young adult, with problem behaviours which should have been trained and disciplined out of him when he was a child
This site tries to steer clear of current buzz words, political correctness, and comforting, wish-fulfilling, ego-preserving fairy tale beliefs. I particularly urge you to read the articles on the use of photoboards to help the mentally handicapped child communicate.


One essay concerns a system of developing early COMMUNICATION, i.e. the communication types of a young normal child or an older mentally handicapped person, (I refuse to use the silly term 'autistic'). The mode we are interested in is the visuo-motor one.


Another essay concerns a strange behaviour of young normal children and older mentally handicapped people. This behaviour might be described as using body parts as symbolic objects. The aspect we are especially interested in is the use of the hand, the palm, and can be described as LOOKING AT HANDS

the pointing handshape is coded as 'G' in the Stokoe system

Another article deals with a CODING SYSTEM.


This article deals with SYMBOLS AND SYMBOLISM.

still life - autumn, 
by Ian Locking

As an almost complete break from the psychology, in the form of a view of the authors' paintings, sculpture, and satirical prose, only marred by a discussion of the personality of artists, click on


© 2004 John and Ian Locking

The material in this site is the intellectual property of the authors. None of it may be used, e.g. to develop an identical or similar system to the one proposed, without the express permission of the authors. None of it may be reproduced without a proper attribution to the authors.