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Definition of «Mental retardation»

Mental retardationMental retardationMental retardation

Mental retardation: A term used when a person has certain limitations in mental functioning and in skills such as communicating, taking care of him or herself, and social skills. These limitations will cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than a typical child. Children with mental retardation may take longer to learn to speak, walk, and take care of their personal needs such as dressing or eating. They are likely to have trouble learning in school. They will learn, but it will take them longer. There may be some things they cannot learn. As many as 3 out of every 100 people have mental retardation. In fact, 1 out of every 10 children who need special education has some form of mental retardation.

There are many causes of mental retardation. The most common causes are:

  • Genetic conditions -- Abnormalities of chromosomes and genes. Examples of genetic conditions are Down syndrome (trisomy 21), fragile X syndrome, and phenylketonuria (PKU).
  • Problems during pregnancy -- When the baby does not develop normally inside the mother. For example, a woman who drinks alcohol or gets an infection like rubella during pregnancy may have a baby with mental retardation.
  • Perinatal problems -- Problems during labor and birth, such as not getting enough oxygen.
  • Health problems -- Diseases like whooping cough, the measles, or meningitis. Mental retardation can also be caused by extreme malnutrition or being exposed to poisons like lead or mercury.

The diagnosis of mental retardation is made by looking at two main things. These are (1) the ability of a person's brain to learn, think, solve problems, and make sense of the world (intellectual functioning or IQ); and (2) whether the person has the skills he or she needs to live independently (called adaptive behavior, or adaptive functioning).

Intellectual functioning, or IQ, is usually measured by an IQ test. The average IQ score is, by definition, 100. People scoring below 70 to 75 on the IQ test are considered to have mental retardation. To measure adaptive behavior, professionals look at what a child can do in comparison to other children of his or her age. Certain skills are important to adaptive behavior. These are daily living skills (such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and feeding one's self), communication skills (such as understanding what is said and being able to answer) and social skills (interacting with peers, family members, adults, and others).

There are many signs of mental retardation. For example, children with mental retardation may:

  • sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children;
  • learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking,
  • find it hard to remember things,
  • not understand how to pay for things,
  • have trouble understanding social rules,
  • have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions,
  • have trouble solving problems, and/or
  • have trouble thinking logically.

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. They may not even be diagnosed as having mental retardation until they get to school. As they become adults, many people with mild retardation can live independently.

The remaining 13% of people with mental retardation score below 50 on IQ tests. These people will have more difficulty in school, at home, and in the community. A person with more severe retardation will need more intensive support his or her entire life. Every child with mental retardation is able to learn, develop, and grow.

A child with mental retardation can do well in school but is likely to need individualized help. In the US the states are responsible for meeting the educational needs of children with disabilities. For children up to age three, services are provided through an early intervention system. Staff work with the child's family to develop what is known as an Individualized Family Services Plan, or IFSP. The IFSP will describe the child's unique needs. It also describes the services the child will receive to address those needs. The IFSP will emphasize the unique needs of the family, so that parents and other family members will know how to help their young child with mental retardation. Early intervention services may be provided on a sliding-fee basis, meaning that the costs to the family will depend upon their income. In some states, early intervention services may be at no cost to parents.

For eligible school-aged children (including preschoolers), special education and related services are made available through the school system. School staff will work with the child's parents to develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The IEP is similar to an IFSP. It describes the child's unique needs and the services that have been designed to meet those needs. Special education and related services are provided at no cost to parents.

Many children with mental retardation 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 parents:

  • Learn about mental retardation. The more you know, the more you can help yourself and your child. See the list of resources and organizations at the end of this publication.
  • Encourage independence in your child. For example, help your child learn daily care skills, such as dressing, feeding him or herself, using the bathroom, and grooming.
  • Give your child chores. Keep her age, attention span, and abilities in mind. Break down jobs into smaller steps. For example, if your child's job is to set the table, first ask her to get the right number of napkins. Then have her put one at each family member's place at the table. Do the same with the utensils, going one at a time. Tell her what to do, step by step, until the job is done. Demonstrate how to do the job. Help her when she needs assistance. r Give your child frequent feedback. Praise your child when he or she does well. Build your child's abilities.
  • Find out what skills your child is learning at school. Find ways for your child to apply those skills at home. For example, if the teacher is going over a lesson about money, take your child to the supermarket with you. Help him count out the money to pay for your groceries. Help him count the change.
  • Find opportunities in your community for social activities, such as scouts, recreation center activities, sports, and so on. These will help your child build social skills as well as to have fun.
  • Talk to other parents whose children have mental retardation. Parents can share practical advice and emotional support.
  • Meet with the school and develop an educational plan to address your child's needs. Keep in touch with your child's teachers. Offer support. Find out how you can support your child's school learning at home.

Resources in the US include the following organizations:

The Arc (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States)
1010 Wayne Avenue, Suite 650
Silver Spring, MD 20910
(301) 565-3842

American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR)
444 North Capitol Street NW, Suite 846
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 387-1968; (800) 424-3688 (outside DC)

Division on Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities (MRDD)
The Council for Exceptional Children
1110 North Glebe Road, Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201-5704
(888) 232-7733; (703) 620-3660

For More Information «Mental retardation»

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