What everyone should know about Mental Retardation

What is Mental Retardation? How Important a problem is mental retardation?
Isn't retardation a type of Mental Illness? Causes of mental retardation:
Degrees of Mental Retardation What is being done to help people with mental retardation?
What's the outlook for prevention and treatment? What you can do?


What is Mental Retardation?

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How Important a problem is mental retardation?

Retardation is a major social, educational and health problem in America today.



The total annual cost to the country is over $6 billion in special services and lost wages.

Most of these people have "mild" or "moderate" mental retardation. With proper education, training and understanding, they can become productive and self-supporting members of society....BETTER LEARNERS AND BETTER DOERS!

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Isn't retardation a type of Mental Illness?

No, mental retardation and mental illness are separate problems.

Mental Illness Mental Retardation
Can be temporary, like many other illness Is usually a lifelong condition
Occurs most often in early adult and middle years Usually occurs at or near birth - almost always recognized by school age
Does not necessarily interfere with strictly intellectual abilities Is characterized by slow intellectual development
Often can be cured by counseling, medication, surgery Can be treated through educationl techniques and therapy

Both requre understanding and treatment as early as possible.

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Causes of mental retardation:

Any condition, illness or injury that interferes with mental development before, during or after birth can cause mental retardation.

These can be either

There is no measurable damage to brain tissue itself in most cases of retardation. So -- it's usually impossible to know beforehand if an infant will be mentally retarded.

(Retardation can occur in any family, regardless of race, income or education level.)

Over 250 specific causes have been identified, but they account for only 1/4 of all cases of mental retardation.

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8 Leading Known Causes of Mental Retardation

1. Infections during pregnancy. Infections are especially dangerous during the first 3 months. German measles (rubella) is one infectious disease that can cause a baby to be born retarded. It can be prevented by vaccination before pregnancy.

2. Abnormal delivery. Premature babies are more often retarded than full-term babies. Very long, extremely rapid or difficult childbirth all can cause brain damage leading to retardation. The problem usually is an insufficient oxygen supply to the baby (anoxia).

3. Infectious Illness in infancy. Infectious illnesses that most commonly affect mental development in infants are meningitis and encephalitis. These illnesses usually can be successfully treated if diagnosed early.

4. Toxic agents. These can be eaten or inhaled by a pregnant mother or a baby. Take medicines only by prescription - and with your physician's approval. Alcohol consumption by pregnant women can cause retardation in their children, so don't drink. Lead poisoning, contracted when small children chew lead-painted objects, can cause retardation.

5. Metabolic Disorders. Different defects in body chemistry can cause several types of retardation. Phenylketonuria, hypothyroidism, galactosemia and others can be corrected if diagnosed promptly and a proper diet is followed.

6. Rh Blood Factor Incompatability. This may lead to severe retardation. Good prenatal care and transfusions right after birth can prevent damage. New vaccines for Rh negative mothers can prevent damage to the baby in many cases.

7. Physical Malformations. Hydrocephalus (fluid accumulation in the brain) and craniosynostosis (premature hardening of the skull) sometimes result in retardation. These can sometimes be corrected by surgery.

8. Down's Syndrome. An inborn genetic defect, Down's Syndrome affects one out of every 600 babies. There's no known cure, but tests are available to detect genetic disorders in parents and the unborn child. Down's Syndrome is more common when the mother is over 35.

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Degrees of Mental Retardation

There are 3 factors in classification:

  1. Mental ability (intelligence quotient)
  2. Adaptive behavior (social quotient)
  3. Physical developement (in infancy)

Diagnosis is individualized and often complex. It must include careful study and observation of a child by qualified professionals as well as tests for intelligence and adaptive behavior.


Developmental Characteristics



0-5 years

School age

6 20 years


21 and over


I.Q. 51-70

89% of all people who are retarded

Often not diagnosed until later age.

Learns academic and prevocational skills with some special training.

Lives and works in the community. May not be easily identified as retarded.


I.Q. 36-50

6% of all people who are retarded

Fair motor development. Can learn to talk and care for basic needs.

Learns functional academic skills and can be independent in familiar surroundings.

Performs semi-skilled work under sheltered conditions. May achieve competitive employment.


I.Q. 21-35

3 % of all people who are retarded

Slow motor development and some communications skills. May have physical disabilities.

Can talk or learn to communicate. Cares for personal needs.

Can contribute to self-maintenance with supervision in work and living situations.


I.Q. 20 or less

1 % of all people who are retarded

Overall responsiveness is minimal. Often has secondary physical disabilities.

Motor development is slow. Can be taught basic self-care skills.

Some communication skills. Cares for basic needs and performs highly structured work activities.

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What is being done to help people with mental retardation?

Much basic and applied research still is needed in this field. Many basic questions still are unanswered.

Today we have the knowledge to help most people who are retarded lead fuller, happier lives through

  1. Special education
  2. Clinical programs
  3. Social services
  4. Vocational rehabilitation

Unfortunately, despite recent advances, most people who are mentally retarded do not yet receive the professional help they need. Statistics show:


It's time to close the gap between what is known and what is done through...

1. Early diagnosis and treatment. Retardation often is not diagnosed until children start school. This presents an unnecessary disability during the years of greatest growth.

All infants should be examined periodically for all types of disablities or abnormal conditions, including mental retardation.

2. More workers for mental retardation programs. Specially trained professionals are needed. High school and junior college graduates can build rewarding careers in this people-helping field that needs thousands of trained personnel with hundreds of different skills.

3. Expanded education and service programs. Education for individuals who are retarded can be expanded and improved.

Many needs of people who are retarded can be met through outpatient services, which can be included in community health-care plans.

4. Increased research and information exchange. This includes searching for cures, helping to find ways toprevent retardation, compiling statistics, providing genetic counseling, etc.

Information, research and resource centers to share information are important tools for learning more about retardation and for putting knowledge into action.

5. New legal code and legal services for people who are retarded. There is a special need for free or low-cost legal services.

Laws based upon outdated prejudices about mental retardation should be changed. Most persons who are retarded can and should exercise the same legal rights as others.

6. More vocational opportunities and training. People who are retarded can be excellent workers and can learn a wide range of job skills.

More job opportunities are urgently needed, as well as better coordination between vocational training and job placement.

7. Family counseling and assistance. Most people with mental retardation are happier and do better as part of a family. Family counseling can help families keep members who are retarded living with them instead of in institutions, by providing emotional and pratical guidance and support.

8. New living facilities. Facilities must be available to take over when families are unable to care for a relative who is retarded.

There is a need for more group homes, foster homes, day-care centers and small residential facilities. The trend is away from larger institutions, which often lack funds and staff required for quality care.

9. More services for more people in the future. Private agencies, government and industry can work together, combining a wide range of knowledge and resources.

Cooperation is the best way to develop better distribution of services to all groups.

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What's the outlook for prevention and treatment?

Mental retardation is a complex problem, with educational, medical, social, cultural and vocational aspects.

Over the next decade, we look to progress in these areas.

Genetic Research

Identifies causes of some types of retardation, and helps locate "high-risk" parents.

Specialized Clinics

Provide direct help and new information through diagnosis, evaluation and treatment over th elong term. Many such centers already exist.

Psychological Research

Learning about the learning process itself gives educators clues to more effective teaching methods for people who are retarded.

Public Awareness

Of the problem of mental retardation will continue to change attitudes and prejudices. More people who are retarded will be able to remain in their communities as productive members.

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What you can do.....

  1. Understand what mental retardation is, how it can be prevented and treated.
  2. Find out about the mental retardation services in your community and how they can be improved.
  3. Support all levels of government funding, and industry and private efforts to combat mental retardation with your vote, your involvement and your dollars.
  4. Volunteer your help. Participate in tutoring, recreational or foster grandparent programs. Join local civic and service organizations helping citizens who are retarded.


Fighting mental retardation is everyone's job.

Fact Sheet