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Mental Retardation

Mental retardation refers to certain limitations in mental functioning and in skills such as communicating, daily self-care such as dressing or eating, and social skills. These limitations will cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than a typical child. Mentally retarded will often need extra help to cope with the challenges of school. They will learn, but it will take them longer. There may be some things they cannot learn.

Mental retardation is not a disease. You can't catch it from anyone. It's also not a type of mental illness, like depression. There is no cure for mental retardation. However, most children with mental retardation can learn to do many things. It just takes them more time and effort than other children.

Every child with mental retardation is able to learn, develop, and grow. With help, all children with mental retardation can live a satisfying life.


Doctors have found many causes of mental retardation. The most common are:

  • Genetic conditions. Examples of genetically-caused mental retardation are Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and phenylketonuria (PKU).
  • Problems during pregnancy. Mental retardation can result when something goes wrong with the baby's development in the womb. For example, there may be a problem with the way the baby's cells divide as it grows. Exposure to alcohol or rubella during pregnancy may also cause a baby to be born mentally retarded.
  • Problems during labor and birth. Problems such as lack of oxygen during labor and birth can cause mental retardation.
  • Early childhood health problems. Diseases such as measles, meningitis or whooping cough can cause mental retardation. Mental retardation can also be caused by extreme malnutrition, inadequate medical care, or exposure to poisons such as lead or mercury.


There are many possible ways to recognize mental retardation. For example, children with mental retardation may:

  • be developmentally delayed in sitting up, crawling, or walking, or talking, or have trouble speaking
  • find it difficult to remember things
  • not understand how to pay for things
  • have trouble understanding social rules, seeing the consequences of their actions, solving problems, and/or thinking logically
The vast majority (about 87%) of people with mental retardation will only be a little slower than average in learning new information and skills. When they are children, their limitations may not be obvious. Their mental retardation may not even be diagnosed until they get to school. As they reach adulthood, many people with mild retardation can live independently. Other people may not even consider them as having mental retardation.

The remaining 13% of people with mental retardation score below 50 on IQ tests. These people will have significant difficulty keeping up in school, at home, and in the community. They will need more intensive support throughout their entire life.


To diagnose mental retardation, professionals look at the person's mental abilities (IQ) and his or her adaptive skills. These are:

  • A child's IQ or intellectual functioning, the innate ability of their brain to learn, think, solve problems, and make sense of the world. Intellectual functioning (IQ) is usually measured by a test called an IQ test. The average score is 100. People scoring below 70 to 75 are said to be mentally retarded.
  • The child's adaptive behavior, whether they have the skills they need to live independently. Key skills include daily living skills, communication skills, and social skills. To measure adaptive behavior, professionals look at what a child can do in comparison to other children of his or her age.
Providing services to help individuals with mental retardation has led to a new understanding of how we define mental retardation. After the initial diagnosis of mental retardation is made, we look at a person's strengths and weaknesses. We also look at how much support or help the person needs to get along at home, in school, and in the community. This approach gives a realistic picture of each individual. It also recognizes that the "picture" can change. As the person grows and learns, his or her ability to get along in the world grows as well.

Support and Treatment

A child with mental retardation can do well in school but is likely to need individualized help.

The family will work with pre-school and school staff to develop an individualized plan, which will describe:

  • The child's unique needs
  • The services the school will provide to address those needs
  • The unique responsibilities of the family
Many mentally retarded need help with adaptive skills, which are skills needed to live, work, and play in the community. Teachers and parents can help a child work on these skills at both school and home. Some of these skills include:
  • Communicating with others
  • Taking care of personal needs (dressing, bathing, going to the bathroom);
  • Health and safety
  • Home living (helping to set the table, cleaning the house, or cooking dinner)
  • Social skills (manners, knowing the rules of conversation, getting along in a group, playing a game)
  • Reading, writing, and basic math and
  • As they get older, skills that will help them in the workplace
Tips for families
  • Demonstrate, don't just describe
  • Show a picture or provide hands-on materials and experiences and the opportunity to try things out whenever possible, to complement new information
  • Divide longer, new tasks into small steps. Demonstrate and have the student repeat the steps, one at a time. Provide assistance, as necessary
  • Provide immediate feedback. Praise your child when he or she does well
  • Encourage independence by helping the child learn daily care skills, such as dressing, feeding him or herself, using the bathroom, and grooming
  • Assign simple chores appropriate to the child's age, attention span, and abilities in mind
  • Community social activities, such as scouts, recreation center activities, sports can help your child build social skills as well as to have fun

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