What’s Wrong With Timmy?

What's Wrong with Timmy - coverWhat’s Wrong with Timmy?

Submitter: This book is part of a series by Shriver for helping kids accept the fact that bad stuff happens to people and no one knows why.  There is another book we own by Shriver about Alzheimer’s.  Kate, our main character, learns through colored pencil illustrations that Timmy may be disabled, but he tries his best to be just like everyone else.  The book is very wordy, definitely something I wouldn’t read to any kids.  But the kicker for me is that it uses the term “mental retardation.”  As far as I know, even as a medical term, retardation was not used as a diagnosis any more by 2001, though I may be mistaken.  I’ve included more pictures of the text, because the illustrations are rather bland and forgettable.

Holly: I have yet to see the perfect “explain our differences” picture book. They either have weird illustrations or too many words or questionable terminology. This one is better than many, I’d say, but I do agree that there are too many words per page. I think it could be said just as nicely in a sentence or two per page with words kids can understand (and words they should be encouraged to use).

What's Wrong with Timmy - picture of girl on swing

What's Wrong with Timmy

Whats Wrong with Timmy

Whats Wrong with Timmy


  1. Well, don’t knock Maria Shriver for using “mental retardation” in a book published in 2001. That was 16 years ago, and maybe the term was still considered okay at that time. Now, definitely, the Special Olympics organization (which the Shriver family runs) prefers “intellectual disability” and calls “retardation” “the r-word”

  2. According to wikipedia (as librarians, we all know how reliable that is as a source), “a BBC survey in 2003 ranked it [retarded] as the most offensive disability-related word, ahead of terms such as spastic (or its abbreviation spaz) and mong.” However, the article also says that, “[t]he terms mentally retarded and mental retardation are still fairly common,” and mentions their presence in federal regulations.

  3. 2013 is the final date for the use of the term within the SSA, according to the Federal Register.

    The Federal Register The Daily Journal of the United States Government

    Rule Change in Terminology: “Mental Retardation” to “Intellectual Disability”

    A Rule by the Social Security Administration on 08/01/2013

    DOCUMENT DETAILS Printed version: PDF Publication Date: 08/01/2013
    Agency: Social Security Administration
    Dates: This final rule is effective September 3, 2013.
    Effective Date: 09/03/2013
    Document Type: Rule
    Document Citation: 78 FR 46499
    Page: 46499-46502 (4 pages)
    CFR: 20 CFR 404

    Change in Terminology: “Mental Retardation” to “Intellectual Disability”
    Docket RIN
    Public Comments:
    AGENCY: Social Security Administration.

    ACTION: Final rule.

    This final rule adopts, without change, the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) we published in the Federal Register on January 28, 2013. We are replacing the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in our Listing of Impairments (listings) that we use to evaluate claims involving mental disorders in adults and children under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act) and in other appropriate sections of our rules. This change reflects the widespread adoption of the term “intellectual disability” by Congress, government agencies, and various public and private organizations.
    This final rule is effective September 3, 2013.

  4. The term “special needs” is more and more deprecated these days too, seen as patronizing and euphemistic. I’m also not in love with the “what’s wrong with him?” framing (although that’s how kids do think). I think a modern book would also try to give Timmy more of a voice in the conversation, instead if it being all other people talking about him.

  5. I don’t think that this term was acceptable even in 2001. I was a school library volunteer in the 90s, and I can remember tossing a pamphlet file with the label Mental Retardation on it. We can all applaud the efforts of the Shriver family with the Special Olympics organization, but this book needs to go.

  6. I wish people these days would stop saying “autistic” or “sperg” which they’re basically putting in place of the r-word as an insult. I was diagnosed with a mild form of autism and hearing people say those those things is awful.

  7. Aside from controversies over terms used, this whole series by Maria Shriver is just terrible. We had two of them on my library’s shelves (in a preK-8th grade private Catholic school), and I recently pulled them to be housed in the counselor’s office–if she needs a jumping-off point to talk to a child, maybe she can use it. They never get checked out down here, thankfully.

  8. My own younger brother is developmentally disabled, and I have very distinct memories of cringing or correcting people when they used the term “retarded,” even in a medical context, when we were still preteens, which would have been the early 1990s. A better measure of acceptability than the DSM, which is usually a generation or two behind the times, would be how people are self-labeling, and the name change of The ARC in 1992 is a perfect illustration of this:

    Regarding the book itself, I agree with what others have said about it being very patronizing and talking about Timmy rather than giving him a voice.

  9. I paged through this in a thrift store recently. I got the impression it was more for adults trying to pat themselves on the back for teaching kids about disabilities than it was for kids themselves.

    Is there another reason, besides the use of “retarded” or “retard” as an insult, why “mental retardation” has gone out of favor as the acceptable term? When I was a kid, you weren’t supposed to say something uncool was “retarded”, but it was still considered okay to say something like, “Jane’s brother goes to classes at a center for mentally retarded kids.”

  10. “Mental retardation” is still very much with us — see the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) – 10:


    It’s one of those terms that is used in other countries much more than it is in the US. Which does make it odd for a US-published book by an American author. But there are cultural differences at work with medical terminology and this is just one more example.

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