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What is Mental Retardation?

Nicole Madison
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Mental retardation is a condition marked by intellectual and developmental delays. This means a person functions at an intellectual or developmental level that is considered lower than normal. A person with this condition often has difficulty learning and performing basic tasks associated with daily living. A diagnosis of mental retardation doesn’t mean a person cannot learn, however. Instead, it means the person will probably need special help learning and reaching developmental milestones.

An individual is typically diagnosed with mental retardation before he reaches 18 years of age. Often, family members begin to suspect intellectual and developmental delays when a child reaches certain milestones at a slower-than-typical rate. For example, a child may be slower to develop motor skills than other children his age. He may take longer than usual to roll over or sit up. In some cases, a child may fail to develop some motor skills altogether.

In addition to the slow development of motor skills, a child with mental retardation may be slow to develop language and daily living skills. He may, for example, be incapable of brushing his own teeth or feeding himself. He may also have difficulty talking, start talking much later than other children his own age, or seem incapable of forming recognizable words at all. He may also have trouble adapting to change.

It can be difficult to pinpoint what causes a person to have developmental and intellectual disabilities. Before a baby is born, his mother may develop infections that lead to retardation. Prescription medications, illegal drugs, and alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to retardation as well. Sometimes a genetic abnormality causes the condition.

Among the problems that can lead to mental retardation after pregnancy are insufficient oxygen for the baby during childbirth and the development of a serious infection during infancy. The cause doesn’t always present itself early in life, however. A serious head injury can lead to retardation at any age.

In cases of severe mental retardation, children may be diagnosed at a very young age because the symptoms are so obvious. When a child is only mildly retarded, however, his symptoms may not be diagnosed until he has begun to attend school or even later. If family members and doctors suspect mental retardation, a doctor typically uses developmental screening tests to diagnose it. Unfortunately, there is no cure. Instead, treatment usually focuses on special education techniques designed to help a developmentally disabled person to learn and develop.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By jkvenus — On Oct 03, 2012

My child is 11 years old and has suffered from mild abnormality since birth. She has delayed development in physical and mental levels. All tests have been done and her IQ test is above 70 percent.

Can anyone cure my child?

By anon246781 — On Feb 11, 2012

I must admit that, as the mother of a gorgeous seven week old son with trisomy 21, I find the word retarded offensive. I'm glad most people are not ignorant enough to use it these days!

By showered72 — On Jul 12, 2010

Over time, the preferred nomenclature for mental deficiency has changed drastically. The once popular term "retarded" is now being replaced by "special" and "challenged." In addition, many people currently refer to this condition as a "developmental delay" to avoid being offensive by directly mentioning a handicap or disability.

By pistachios — On Jul 12, 2010

Mental retardation is often caused by Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome.

Mental retardation can also be caused by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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