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A closer look at Mental Retardation

More... American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry  |   Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC)

Mental retardation is a condition that results in people having a slower rate of learning and often makes it difficult for them to perform the activities of daily living. People with mental retardation also find it difficult to understand the behavior of others and to determine their own responses to social situations.

Mental retardation is not a disease and it is not contagious. It should not be confused with mental illness. Mental retardation affects up to 7.5 million individuals in the United States, according to one survey. Mental retardation, often abbreviated "MR" by people who are familiar with it, crosses racial, ethnic, educational, social, and economic backgrounds. One of 10 American families is affected by someone with mental retardation.

The American Association on Mental Retardation defines mental retardation on the basis of three criteria:

1. Intellectual functioning level (IQ) below about 70 or 75,

2. Significant limitations in two or more skills needed to adapt to daily living, and

3. a condition that is present from childhood. This definition is accompanied by an assessment of a person's strengths and weaknesses in adaptive skills for daily living and the resulting support services that the person needs. Levels of support range from intermittent to limited to extensive to pervasive. Intermittent support might be "as needed" help (in finding a job, for example), whereas limited support may occur over a limited time, such as transition from school to work. Extensive support means assistance that a person needs on a daily and regular basis at home or work, while pervasive support can mean total dependence on others, including life-sustaining care.

An interdisciplinary team looks at the following adaptive skills in assessing a mentally retarded person's functioning level: communication, self-care, home living, social skills, leisure, health and safety, self-direction, functional academics, community use, and work.

Mental retardation can be caused by any condition that impairs development of the brain before birth, during birth, or during childhood. Although hundreds of causes have been connected to mental retardation, the three major causes are Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, and fragile X syndrome.

Generally, the causes can be put in categories such as genetic conditions, problems during pregnancy, problems at birth (especially premature and low birth weight), childhood diseases and trauma, and poverty and environmental deprivation.

The key to understanding mental retardation is recognizing that adaptive skills are learned behavior. This means that each individual may learn daily living skills to the limits of that individual's physical and intellectual capacity. A person with intellectual limits may not be diagnosed as mentally retarded if the person masters enough adaptive skills to cope with daily life in his or her typical environment. Thus, the challenge in considering adoption of a child with mental retardation is to assess the family's own ability to meet the child's needs to learn and grow as far as possible.

This, of course, is what parents want for all children--to see them reach their potential, whatever it might be.

If you are a Texas resident and are not approved as a foster or adoptive family, please fill out our Adoption and Foster Care Interest form in the Get Started section.

If you have questions or want to inquire about a specific child or sibling group, contact the Texas Adoption Resource Exchange (TARE) or call 1-800-233-3405.

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