Mental Retardation: Causes, Symptoms and What to Do

When there is a developmental disability detected in children below the age of 18, it is called intellectual disability or mental retardation. When the intellectual functioning is well below average as measured by standard intelligence tests and it also causes limitations in the daily life of the person or adaptive functioning.

What Are the Possible Causes for Mental Retardation?

Although there are various causes of mental retardation, the specific cause can be determined in only 25% cases. Some of the causes are given below:

  • Infection which might be present at the time of birth or after birth
  • Abnormalities in the chromosomes e.g. Down’s syndrome
  • Environmental causes
  • Metabolic e.g. hyperbilirubinemia in babies
  • Malnutrition
  • Toxic e.g. exposure to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines to the fetus
  • Trauma i.e. injury before or after birth
  • Unexplained, when the cause cannot be determined

You may watch the video below for a more specific explanation of the possible causes of mental retardation: 

What Symptoms Will Mental Retardation Present?

Mental retardation can be categorized depending on the level of IQ of the person and how well they adjust in the society. There are basically 4 types of mental retardation and they are given below:



Mild Mental Retardation

Here the person has an IQ in the range of 50-69. They have problems in reading and writing, learn to talk late, but once they learn, they can communicate well. They can manage self-care independently, but are socially immature and cannot handle the responsibility of marriage or of being parents. Special schools, education can be helpful for them. They can suffer from autism, epilepsy or some form of physical disability.

Moderate Mental Retardation

These individuals have an IQ in the range of 35 to 49. They are slow learners and would find it difficult to live by themselves. It is difficult for them to understand and use languages and hence have limited ability to communicate. They are able to learn basic reading, writing and counting, get around on their own and also take part in simple social events.

Severe Mental Retardation

They have IQ in the range of 20 to 34 and there is severe damage or abnormal development of the central nervous system in these individuals. They have noticeable motor impairment.

Profound Mental Retardation

With an IQ of less than 20, they require constant care and supervision. They do not understand requests or instructions and hence cannot comply with them. They are generally immobile and are required to wear adult diapers. They mostly can communicate using only basic nonverbal cues.

What About Mental Retardation in Children?

Depending on the severity of the mental retardation, the sign and symptoms of the child may be noticeable during infancy or sometimes after the child begins school. The symptoms can be varied in children; however, some of the most commonly seen signs and symptoms are given below:

    • Reaching the milestones late – rolling over, crawling, sitting up and walking
    • Late start in talking or difficulty in talking
    • Late in getting potty trained, doing activities like dressing or feeding independently
    • Difficulty in remembering things or associating actions with corresponding consequences
    • Throwing tantrums and other behavioral problems
    • Difficulty in logical thinking or problem solving

What to Do If Your Child Is Mentally Retarded

  • Learn and read as much as possible regarding mental retardation so that that you can be the best advocate for your child.
  • Let the child explore and learn things by themselves. Support and guidance should be provided when needed and ensure that you give positive feedback when they achieve something or master something new. Make the child independent.
  • Make the child participate in group activities like art class, scouts, etc. so that they develop social skills.
  • Keep yourself involved in the activities of your child, discuss the progress at school with teachers and help in reinforcing the learning by practicing at home.
  • Get to know parents of other mental retarded children. You can talk to them for advice and emotional support.

How Will Mental Retardation Be Evaluated?

There are various techniques available for evaluating mental retardation. Some of them are given below:

  • Head circumference: Mental retardation can occur due to microcephaly and macrocephaly which can cause changes in the head circumference. They are associated with cognitive defects, autism at different stages in children.
  • Height: Height is associated with certain disorders like fetal alcohol syndrome, hypothyroidism and genetic disorder for short stature. Tall stature could be due to fragile X syndrome, Soto syndrome or some other overgrowth syndrome associated with mental retardation.
  • Neurological: In this examination the head circumference, height, muscle tone, strength, coordination, ataxia, deep tendon reflexes, persistent primitive reflexes and other abnormal movements like dystonia or athetosis are evaluated.
  • Sensory: This is done to determine if there are any visual impairments or hearing defects, as they are more commonly seen in children with mental retardation.
  • Skin: Skin examination is done to find hyper or hypo-pigmented macules or ash-leaf spots, fibromas and irregular pigmentation patterns.
  • Extremities: Of all the cases with mental retardation, only 5-10% cases have congenital anomalies and major malformations. These could involve 3-4 minor anomalies in the face and digits.

Available Treatments and Services for Mental Retardation

  • In the United States, children in the age group of 3 – 21 years with mental retardation are entitled to free testing, individual education, skill training in special schools.
  • Special schools also provide early intervention programs which teach children under age of 3 years basic skills like bathing and feeding.
  • Depending on the level of mental retardation, they are trained in independent living and job skills during adulthood. This enables them to live independently and hold jobs for mild mental retardation. For individuals with moderate or profound retardation, supervised community living is recommended.
  • The family should undergo therapy to cope and deal with various situations, feeling of anger and guilt. A warm and supportive atmosphere at home helps the individual to reach his full potential.
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