Mental Retardation

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 persons with mental retardation are unable to learn or to care for themselves. Actually, in order to be diagnosed as a person with mental retardation, the person has to have both significantly low IQ and considerable problems in adapting to everyday life. However, most children with mental retardation 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 child with significant mental retardation. This is not done anymore. The goal now is for the child with mental retardation to stay in the family and take part in community life. Mental 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.

What Causes Mental Retardation?

Mental retardation is not a disease itself. It cannot be cured and it's not contagious. This condition can be caused by several things that injure the brain or don't allow the brain to develop normally. Many times we don't know why a person has mental retardation. Sometimes it may be caused by genes. Genes are chemical units found in every cell. They carry the instructions telling cells what to do. Sometimes, children receive abnormal genes from their parents. An example of this is a child with Down syndrome. A defective gene may also develop spontaneously. Neither parent would have passed on the gene, but the gene changes before the baby develops.Some other problems that can cause mental retardation also happen before a child is born. It is important for the brain to develop properly if a child is to have normal intelligence. "Planning a pregnancy is the most important decision most of us will make in our lifetime. A healthy lifestyle and good medical care should begin before a woman becomes pregnant and continue throughout the pregnancy," says Jodi Rucquoi, a genetic counselor from Connecticut. If a woman abuses alcohol or drugs or doesn't eat well, there is a risk to the developing baby. Also, a premature birth or problems during childbirth can sometimes harm the baby's developing brain. While premature babies are generally fine, there is a greater chance that they may have mental retardation.In some cases, a young child can develop mental retardation after being sick with a serious infection or other illness, or after suffering a bad head injury.

Can Mental Retardation Be Prevented?

Mental retardation can't always be prevented. However, there are several medical tests that a doctor can do if there is concern that a family is at risk for having a mentally retarded child. Therefore, it is important for couples planning to have a baby to know their family health history. Eating healthy foods and visiting a doctor regularly during pregnancy can also help people avoid some of the causes of mental retardation. Almost every baby in the United States has a blood test done just after birth to check for a number of uncommon diseases that can cause mental retardation. If babies with these diseases are recognized and treated right away, mental retardation in children with these disorders can be prevented in many cases. Also, it's important for kids to do what they can to prevent brain and head injuries. Always wear your seatbelt in the car and wear your helmet while riding your bike, rollerblading, or using your scooter.

What Is Life Like for Someone Who Is Mentally Retarded?

Just like all kids, those with mental retardation need to develop their skills to the best of their ability. They need to go to school and they need to play. It's important to remember their feelings. It is not right to call kids with mental retardation names because a medical problem makes them different in some ways. Dr. M. J. Mahoney, a doctor from Connecticut, reminds us that people with mental retardation "laugh and cry, have good days and bad days, and are as dependent on kindness, acceptance, and love as anyone else."Kids with mild retardation may be in the same class as kids with normal intelligence. They may be able to do all the things their classmates do but need just a little more help. As they get older, they may be able to get jobs and live on their own. Oftentimes, others aren't aware that a person has mild retardation. People with this level of retardation are usually able to function independently alongside their friends and coworkers. People with moderate to severe retardation may require more help. They may have to live with their families even when they are older. There are also places called group homes where they can receive lots of help and live with other moderately to severely retarded people. People with profound retardation usually also live in group homes or are dependent upon the help they receive from a caregiver devoted to their many needs.

We are all different in many ways. We may look or act different than even our best friends. We also all learn differently. Some people learn things quickly while others just need more time. Some of us are terrific in math while others are great athletes. It's important to remember that our differences don't make us weird . . . they just make us individuals.