Mental Retardation: What It Is and What It Isn’t

In our system, we may share the value that all people are created equal in the eyes of the law. This is not to say, however, that all people are born with equal capacities. Genetics, prenatal circumstances and events of birth can result in certain developmental impacts with which the person arrives “hard wired.” One of these is the condition we call Mental Retardation.

Causes of Mental Retardation

Prenatal and birth events can cause a child to be born with less than average cognitive abilities. When there are significant deficits in adaptive functioning accompanied by measurably sub-average Intelligence Quotient (IQ), it is appropriate to use the term Mental Retardation to describe the condition.

Mental Retardation can arise, in the developing embryo, as a function of many things. Certain physical injuries to the mother can impact the fetus as can substances. It is not only alcohol and illegal drugs that present risk to the unborn child. Many prescription medications are also ill-advised during pregnancy. In this area, history has recorder some horrible surprises like the Thalidomide situation in the mid-twentieth century.

The mother and the child that is growing within her are in a ‘symbiotic’ relationship. They are two organisms existing as one. Anything that the mother puts into her body is absorbed by and effects the baby. It is known that developing beings are most vulnerable to the negative effect of certain substances in the mother’s body during the first trimester. The risk, while most dramatic in the first three months of gestation, do not simply stop there.

Certain maternal illnesses are associated with an increased probability of bearing a child with Mental Retardation and many other factors including (but not limited to) nutrition and the age of the mother at the time of conception are also understood to play some role in impacting the likelihood of having a child born with Mental Retardation.

Mental Retardation can also be what is called “idiopathic.” That is to say it does not appear to be caused by anything in particular and is, to the best anyone can determine, a genetic anomaly – a fluke – Something that just happens sometimes.

The causes are many. The prevalence of Mental Retardation in the general (non-institutionalized) population of the United States is currently estimated to be just under 1%.

How Mental Retardation is Diagnosed

According to the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (the DSM-IV TR), There are two criteria that must be satisfied to correctly diagnose Mental Retardation.

First, a person’s intellectual functioning needs to be assessed in an individually administered, standardized IQ test as being sub-average. On most standardized measures, this would mean attaining a Full Scale intelligence quotient of 70 or below.

Secondly, the person would need to demonstrate significant impairments in their adaptive functioning in at least two of the following areas: Communication, Self-care, Home living, Social/interpersonal skills, Work, Self-direction, Functional academic skills, Leisure, Health and Safety.

If the first category is satisfied but the person’s adaptive skills are OK, there is something wrong but it is NOT Mental Retardation. Likewise, if a person’s measurable intelligence is normal but their adaptive skills are impaired, the diagnosis of Mental Illness would be incorrect.

There are five degrees of Mental Retardation ranging from Mild to Profound.

Treatment for Mental Retardation

Because Mental Retardation is the result of a biogenetic condition that is not reversible, it is not ‘treatable’ in the usual sense of the word. It cannot be cured or repaired. However, persons with Mental Retardation are often able to achieve a lot more than others might assume if they are provided with appropriate experiential, learning and training opportunities.

The fact that Mental Retardation circumscribes a person’s capacities is often a hard piece of reality for parents and other loved ones to deal with. In fact, the first task of parents to whom a child with Mental Retardation is born may well be to mourn the loss of the more perfect child that was not born so as to be able to fully welcome the one that was.

Many people with Mild Mental Retardation live entirely normal lives. They hold jobs and have families. Within the scope of their abilities, they are able to have satisfying and productive lives. People with Moderate degrees of the condition require continuing support and may be able to live independently with some ongoing support services. Those with Severe or Profound Mental Retardation are usually substantially dependent and often have serious physical limitations as well.

Sometimes Mental Retardation is accompanied by visible traits (“stigmata”) like those commonly associated with Down Syndrome. Sometimes, the condition is not physically apparent. In any event, Mental Retardation is a very real condition that a person is born with that will have much determining influence over the needs of that person and the course of their life.

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