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Q: What is oligophrenia? How serious it is?

What follows is something that was printed as "The CSI (Christian Solidarity International) investigation" on one of the apr lists.

A total of 171 children were assessed, most of them with one test but some with two. Ages ranged from 18 months to 18 years. The majority were in the 8-13 age range. Random samples were not attempted. Those children who were clearly Down's Syndrome, microcephalic, or who had dysmorphic features suggestive of neuropsychiatric syndromes which might be associated with mental retardation were eliminated. Often, the psychologists tested an entire class, in groups, or individually. Tests used by the clinical psychologist included the Block Design and Mazes subtests from the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (Revised). The block design test, which was administered individually, requires the child to look at a pattern on paper and copy the design with blocks. The drawings are graded in order of difficulty. The mazes require the child to draw the way out of increasingly difficult mazes. 82 children in 10 institutions were tested. Tests used by the educational psychologist included the Matrices and Basic Number Skills tests from the British Ability Scales; the Visual Recognition tests (for pre-schoolers), and the Raven's Colored Progressive Matrices. 97 children in 15 institutions were tested. Of the 97, 13 were also tested by a clinical psychologist.
Findings: On a group-administered screening test, one third of the children in St. Petersburg were misclassifed: 18 of the 50 children (36%) assessed scored within normal limits, yet all had been diagnosed as "oligophrenic" with varying degrees of severity. Of nine toddlers in the St. Petersburg group who were diagnosed as "oligophrenic" (aged 18 months to 3.5 years), 2 were found to have average ability, 6 were mildly delayed in their development (but no more than 6 months) and 1 was severely handicapped. In Moscow: "In three institutions visited in Moscow, the diagnosis of severe learning disability appeared to be generally justified. However, in one of these orphanages, of 12 children selected for individual study, 5 scored within normal limits on the ability test. It was particularly surprising that among ten children tested in a home for severely handicapped children (in Soviet terms 'imbeciles' and 'idiots'), we found one child of normal ability." Of the 82 children assessed by a clinical psychologist (age range 18 m-16 yr) in ten institutions in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 53 scored within the normal range on non-verbal developmental and IQ testing, i.e., 66% of those seen. "It can be said with confidence that very substantial numbers of orphans are misclassified as oligophrenic."
The "Oligophrenia" diagnosis: In Soviet psychiatric practice, the term "oligophrenia" (Greek: small brain) is widely used although it is hardly ever used by psychiatrists in the West. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "feeble mindedness". In the 1989 6th edition of R.J. Campbell's Psychiatric Dictionary, it is referred to as an alternative term for mental retardation and defined as "Subnormal general intellectual functioning that originates during the developmental period (before 18 years of age) and which is associated with impaired learning and social adjustment or maturation." Like the term "schizophrenia", which was widely abused during the Brezhnev era in the treatment of dissisdents, the Soviet definition of "oligophrenia" is very broad and includes highly subjective criteria in its application.

A: In response to this article I would like you to use your imagination for a minute. Close your eyes. It is early morning in a special education class for mentally retarded in one of the public schools in New York City. Suddenly, a stranger, who does not speak English, appears in the classroom. With the help of a translator he asks three or four children in the classroom (who appear "smarter" than the others) to do mazes and copy designs with colored blocks. The stranger looks at the protocols and announces that in his country (say, Albania) these results are considered "average". Moreover, "with great confidence" he states that that at least every third child in this special education unit is misclassified (that is, ought to be returned to general education). Now open your eyes. Do you think this scenario is impossible? You are right: it is impossible in New York City. It is unthinkable in this country that a diagnosis of MR or not-MR would be based on two subtests picked from an IQ battery. But why do you think it should be possible in Moscow? Did these tourist-psychologists study the developmental history of those children? Did they observe them in a meaningful learning situation or social activity? Did they interview their parents and teachers? Did they analyze medical data? The answer is - no. Moreover, even their use of the subtests was inappropriate because it violates the basic principles of psychometry. An expression "…assessed scores were within normal limits" or "5 children scored within normal limits on the ability test" is nonsense (psychometrically speaking), because a subtest may produce only a so-called "raw" score that must be converted into a scaled score through the use of the standardization tables in order to make a comparison and to arrive at the psychometric ranges of "average", "below average", etc. But these tables were developed on American children and there are no norms on the WISC for Russian children. In my view, the quick shooting from the hip by British tourists-psychologists does not stand up to scientific scrutiny and may only mislead the public at large. In Russia the professionals do not give these labels easily, usually the evidence of an organic brain damage is needed for the diagnosis.

Below you can also read my article with the discussion of this diagnosis. B. Gindis. Ph. D. Understanding Your Child's Medical Report: Oligophrenia. The Post 10 (1), 3-4. PNPIC, Medow Land, PA.



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