Mental Retardation

Mental retardation is a condition diagnosed before age 18 that includes below-average general intellectual function, and a lack of the skills necessary for daily living. Mental retardation is also known as intellectual disability or cognitive disability. Those who have mental retardation have a difficult time communicating, taking care of themselves, getting along in social situations and school activities. Children with this disability can learn new skills, but they develop more slowly than children with average intelligence.

Causes of Mental Retardation

There are many causes of mental retardation, but doctors determine a specific reason in only 25% of cases. You may suspect mental retardation in a child if their motor skills, language skills, and self-help skills do not seem to be developing, or are developing at a far slower rate than the child’s peers. Failure to adapt and adjust to social situations on a normal wavelength or increase intellectual development may become apparent early in a child’s life. In the case of mild retardation, these failures may not become recognizable until they reach school years or adolescence.

The degree of impairment from mental retardation varies widely, from profoundly impaired to mild or borderline retardation. Less emphasis is now placed on the degree of retardation and more on the amount of intervention and care needed for daily life. There are countless disorders that may cause mental retardation. Some causes include: infections, chromosomal abnormalities, genetic abnormalities and metabolic abnormalities to name a few.

Common Symptoms of Mental Retardation

  • Continued infant-like behavior
  • Decreased learning ability
  • Failure to meet the markers of intellectual development
  • Inability to meet educational demands at school
  • Lack of curiosity


Mental retardation is a serious condition that affects one to three percent of the U.S. population. In order to determine whether or not an individual suffers from mental retardation, a doctor will perform several series of tests establish the patient’s level of intellectual impairment. An assessment of age-appropriate adaptive behaviors can be made using developmental screening tests. The failure to achieve developmental milestones most often suggests mental retardation. Abnormal Denver developmental screening test may also be a sign of mental retardation. Adaptive behavior score below average as well as Intelligence quotient (IQ) score below 70 on a standardized IQ test are also signs that a child may have mental retardation.


There are different degrees of mental retardation, ranging from mild to severe. Children with mental retardation may also have other disabilities, including cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, hearing loss and attention-deficit disorder. Treatment depends on the severity and the other disorders that the child may have. The earlier special education and training is given to the child, the better outcome he or she will have in life.

View Resources

  • Medline Plus – Provides information on mental retardation.

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