Mental retardation, also referred to as cognitive disability is a mental condition detected in children that is characterized by a below-average level of intelligence as well as a limitation in the ability to function in daily activities. This condition is detected before the age of 18. Current research shows that approximately 3 percent of the general United States population has mental retardation. This paper looks at the diagnosis, causes, symptoms, treatment and risk factors, as well as the prevention measures.

            There are many causes of mental retardation. They can be broken down into several characteristics: infection (before or after birth), chromosomal abnormalities, environmental causes, nutritional causes, genetic abnormalities and inherited metabolic disorders, toxic, trauma and other unexplained causes, which form the largest category.  Infections, the most common causes, include infections such as congenital CMV, congenital rubella, congenital toxoplasmosis and other infections such as HIV and meningitis.

 Chromosomal abnormalities include chromosome deletions, chromosomal translocation, defects in the chromosomal inheritance and errors of chromosome numbers such as Down’s syndrome. Genetic abnormalities include; Hunter Syndrome, Adrenoleukodystrophy, Hurler syndrome, Galactosemia, Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, Sanflippo syndrome, Tuberousclerosis and Reyy syndrome.  Metabolic causes include congenital hypothyroid, Reye syndrome, poorly regulated diabetes mellitus and very high bilirubin levels in babies.  Toxic causes include lead poisoning, intrauterine exposure to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines and other drugs, and methyl mercury poisoning.  Trauma causes (before and after birth) are: lack of oxygen to the brain before, during or after birth, intracranial hemorrhage before or after birth and severe head injury.  Deprivation syndrome is an example of an environmental cause.  Malnutrition too, a nutritional cause can also lead to mental retardation (Times Health Guide, 2008)

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            Various methods are used to diagnose mental retardation. The most popular method is the intelligence and skills tests, administered by a qualified professional.  This is also called the Standardized IQ test where the patient’s intelligence quotient (IQ) score is determined. Anyone with an IQ below 70 is considered mentally retarded, with more classification breeding into mild, moderate, severe to profound mental retardation, an IQ score of below 20. The second step followed while diagnosing the illness is the determination of the patient’s strengths and weaknesses in the areas of intellectual and adaptive behavior skills, psychological and emotional considerations, physical health, and environmental facts.  The third step taken is that a trained interdisciplinary team which meets to determine the supports necessary to address the two areas stated above. (

            Since mental retardation is not a disease in itself, but a severe intellectual inability condition, it has no single specific set of symptoms. Certain intellectual in capabilities should not worry parents until they are severely manifested.

            There is a broad spectrum of symptoms. There are behavioral, medical and physical symptoms that do suggest the presence of mental retardation.  Symptoms of mental retardation may appear at birth or later in childhood, in teenage years.  The time of onset varies depending on the suspected cause of the disability.  At the infancy stage, it is difficult to detect mental retardation unless specific physical attributes associated with a syndrome that causes mental retardation are present. Developmental delays are seen in children who have mental retardation. This results into their inability to meet age-appropriate milestones such as crawling, sitting up, walking and talking. (, 2006)

            It is important to note that the intellectual quotient (IQ) levels are not relevant in determining whether a child is mentally retarded, until later years, especially in the child’s teenage life. This is especially necessary in school years, where a child exhibiting such symptoms should have the test. This should be done since mentally retarded children show a significant difference from the other children.

            Mentally retarded children lack problem solving skills, have problems in logical thinking and deficits are noticeable in abstract thought. This deficit in abstract thought is easily noticed in the child’s inability to generalize from one situation to another. For instance, instead of being able to see relationships between similar but different things, mentally retarded children tend to think in a more concrete manner and may be unable to see how things are related. Mentally retarded children also have problems in social skills, which are clearly manifested in a school environment.  For instance, social rules such a stalking turns and waiting until someone else fishes speaking before talking become difficult to understand. Other issues are such as understanding cause and effect relationships .  Medical testing can also reveal mental retardation. Genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome can be identified during pregnancy through chronic villus sampling (CVS), amniocentesis, and other techniques used to gather information about fetal chromosomes and genetic make-up.  In such cases, the symptoms that pint to the presence of a genetic disorder are also symptoms of mental retardation. (

            Certain forms of mental retardation can be treated, especially the cases that are caused by medical problems, such as hyperthyroidism. This is, however, a limited case since no treatment can change a person’s basic intellectual capabilities. Hence most treatment programs are used to help mentally retarded individuals develop their intellectual and functional skills to the maximum possible level.  This goal’s main importance is that it allows for all mentally retarded children to have free testing and appropriate education and skills training from ages three to twenty one.

 This treatment approach has however received criticism as it is not the best.  This is because the treatment strategies applied are often directed toward controlling the symptoms of aberrant behavior rather than treating specific syndromes.  For example, the self-injurious behavior manifest by sufferers of Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome is treated in a very different way from self-mutilatory behavior manifest by a bored, under stimulated person confined to the backwards of an institution. Before treating a certain patient, it is important to decide which particular symptom or feature is being addressed.  Important questions which need to be asked are; is the aim of treatment to improve social interaction and communication or to reduce stereotypic behavior, secondary aggression, or self injury? (Treating Mental Illness by Anton D. & Kenneth D., 2001)

            Since the main goal while administering treatment is to maximize the patient’s potential, many people often lead productive lives and function on their own, whereas other need a structured environment to be successful.  The prognosis depends on certain key factors, such as; opportunities, personal motivation and treatment. (Times Health Guide, 2008)

            The prognosis, especially for patients with mild cases, is usually good, with such individuals becoming self-sufficient, although they may require some social or family support.  Individuals with severe conditions, unfortunately, may have complications later in life usually resulting from medical problems.

            Various prevention measures have been employed to curb the condition. Many forms of mental retardation, fortunately, can indeed be prevented. The pregnant women are advised to avoid taking alcohol, drugs and smoking cigarettes. Prompt treatment of infections is also recommended so as to provide a favorable environment for the developing fetus. Good nutrition to pregnant mothers is also an important factor that should be considered. Young children can too be protected from becoming mentally retarded through various ways. For example, they should be vaccinated against infections at an early stage in their age. They should also see a medical professional regularly so that any decline in a child health that could lead to mental retardation may be discovered. (American Association on Mental Retardation)

            Throughout history, individuals with mental retardation were faced with many challenges posed from living with a significant disability on a daily basis. Negative social perspectives and stigma on individuals who are mentally retarded further aggravated their condition. Today, progress has been made in appreciating the mentally disabled patients. “Retarded”, a mean way of saying a person is not smart enough has been replaced with “disabled”.


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May Institute, Retrieved on 11 November 2008 from:


                                                                                                                                          , 2006 retrieved on 11 November 2008 from:


Treating Mental Illness and Behavior Disorders in Children and Adults with Mental

            Retardation, Dosen & Day K., 2001

Times Health Guide, 2008



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