Mental Retardation

What is Mental Retardation?

Mental retardation is diagnosed based on the following three criteria: intelligence functioning, adaptive skills and age of onset.

Intellectual functioning, or IQ, is the measure of a person’s ability to learn, think, solve problems and make sense of the world. An array of tests is used to come up with a number that quantifies a person’s IQ. A “normal” IQ is around 100. An individual with mental retardation will have an IQ below 70-75.

An individual with mental retardation will also show significant limitations in two or more adaptive skill areas. Adaptive skills are daily living skills required to function independently in society. Below is a short list of adaptive skills:

  • Language expression
  • Reading and writing
  • Self-direction
  • Money concepts
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Responsibility
  • Following rules
  • Personal activities: eating, dressing and mobility
  • Daily activities: preparing meals, taking medication, using the telephone, managing money
  • Occupational skills
  • Maintaining a safe environment

The condition must also be present from childhood, age 18 or younger. About 87% of those diagnosed with mental retardation will be mildly affected and will only be a little slower than average in learning new information and skills. The other 13%, those with an IQ under 50, will have serious limitations in functioning.

What Causes Mental Retardation?

There are a number of factors that can lead to mental retardation. Anything that disrupts the normal course of brain development before birth, during birth or in the childhood years can cause it. The most common causes of mental retardation are:
Genetic factors: Brain development can be affected by abnormal genes inherited from parents, a faulty combination of parents’ genes or other reasons.
Problems during pregnancy: Mental retardation can be caused when a baby does not develop normally during pregnancy, specifically when there are problems in the way a fetus’ cells divide. One of the major causes of mental retardation is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, caused by a woman drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
Problems at birth: If a baby does not get enough oxygen during birth, for example, mental retardation can be caused.
Health problems: Problems in a child’s development during the formative years can be caused by some diseases like measles or meningitis, extreme malnutrition, brain injury or not receiving proper medical care for other illnesses.

What Are the Signs of Mental Retardation?

There are many signs of mental retardation and children will exhibit behaviors and actions that are unique to their situation. Generally, children with mental retardation may:

  • Sit up, crawl or walk later than other children.
  • Learn to talk later or have trouble speaking.
  • Have trouble learning to read or write.
  • Have trouble remembering things.
  • Not understand social rules.
  • Have trouble understanding consequences of actions.
  • Have the inability to solve problems or think logically.

In addition, individuals with mental retardation will have trouble learning or acquiring the adaptive skills listed above.

What Are the Treatments for Mental Retardation?

There is no cure for mental retardation. However, there are ways that the condition can be managed. Often, with special education at school or additional education at home, individuals with mental retardation can function well in society.
Below is a list of tips for parents on helping their child with mental retardation both at home and at school:

  • Encourage the child to be independent. Give him or her added help in learning daily living skills such as dressing, eating and grooming.
  • Give the child chores, keeping in mind his or her abilities. Help the child accomplish those chores; demonstrate how to do the job.
  • Give the child frequent praise to help build the abilities.
  • Find out what the child is learning at school and reinforce that at home.
  • Scout out opportunities for the child’s community involvement, including sports or recreational activities, once again, keeping his or her abilities in mind.
  • Go slow – repetition helps the child to remember; don’t expect too much too fast.
  • Meet with school personnel; keep in-touch with the child’s teachers.

There are also many community programs directed towards those with mental retardation that cannot function without constant help or supervision. Work activity centers, for example, provide adults with mental retardation a meaningful work experience. Requirements of the jobs are often simple and adults receive the care they need during the day, like eating or grooming assistance.

Although mental retardation cannot be cured, it can be prevented. Mothers should receive adequate health care before, during and after a pregnancy. They should receive proper nutrition and abstain from alcohol or drug use.
After children are born, they should be screened for disorders that can be treated in infancy and immunized against contagious diseases.

As they get older, safety precautions such as safety belts, safety seats and helmets should be used to prevent injuries.

How Common is Mental Retardation?

As many as three out of every 100 people in the United States have mental retardation, at some level of functioning. More than 614,000 children ages 6 to 21 have some level of impairment and need special education in school.

Additional Resources:

American Association on Mental Retardation
The Arc of the United States
Division on Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities/Council for Exceptional Children

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