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Special Education Articles: Intellectual Disabilities Articles: Intellectual Disability

Mental Retardation

Article from The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)

The term mental retardation is often misunderstood and seen as derogatory. Some think that retardation is diagnosed only on the basis of below- normal intelligence (IQ), and that retarded persons are unable to learn or to care for themselves. Actually, in order to be diagnosed as mentally retarded, the person has to have both significantly low IQ and considerable problems in adapting to everyday life. However, most children who are retarded can learn a great deal, and as adults can lead at least partially independent lives. Most importantly, they can enjoy their lives just as everyone else.

In the past, parents were usually advised to institutionalize a significantly retarded child. This is not done anymore. Now these children are expected to stay in the family and take part in community life. The law guarantees them educational and other services at public expense.

Retardation may be complicated by physical and emotional problems. The child may also have difficulty with hearing, sight or speech. All these problems can lower the child's potential.

It is very important that the child has a comprehensive evaluation to find out about his or her difficulties as well as strengths. Since no specialist has all the necessary skills, many professionals might be involved. General medical tests as well as tests in areas such as neurology (the nervous system), psychology, psychiatry, special education, hearing, speech and vision, and physical therapy are useful. A pediatrician or a child and adolescent psychiatrist often coordinate these tests.

These physicians refer the child for the necessary tests and consultations, put together the results, and jointly with the family and the school develop a comprehensive treatment and education plan.

Emotional and behavioral disorders are a frequent complication of mental retardation, and they may interfere with the child's progress. Most retarded children recognize that they are behind others of their own age. Some may become frustrated, withdrawn or anxious, or act "bad" to get the attention of other youngsters and adults. Retarded adolescents and young adults may become depressed. These persons might not have enough language skills to talk about their feelings, and their depression may be shown by new problems, for instance in their behavior, eating, and sleeping.

Early diagnosis of psychiatric disorders in retarded youngsters may lead to early treatment. Contrary to common belief, medications are not the only means of treating persons who are retarded, and most of them can benefit from other psychiatric treatment as well.

A periodic child psychiatric consultation may help the family in setting appropriate expectations, limits, opportunities to succeed and other measures which will help their retarded child to handle the stresses of growing up into a fulfilled person.

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