Define Developmental Disabilities Mental Retardation

The developmental disability termed mental retardation is marked by limited daily skills and lower-than-normal intelligence. It may be present at birth or grow later during adolescence, before the age of 18. The disease, once set, usually remains throughout adulthood. The intellectual level of such a person, measured by standard tests for IQ or Intelligent Quotient, is below average. ‘Mental retardation' is a diagnostic term used for people usually referred to as ‘imbecile' or ‘idiot.' Such insulting connotations led to the change of the term ‘mental retardation' to ‘mentally challenge.' Among the disabled community, developmental disability is also an acceptable term.

Skills that are needed for day-to-day life include communication skills (the ability to understand and produce language); academic skills (writing, reading or doing mathematics); social skills (the ability to interact with people on a regular basis, at home or neighbourhood); understanding of safety measures or health concepts and working skills. A diagnosis of mentally disabled is done if the child shows significant limitations in two or more of these skill areas. An IQ score (measuring the ability to reason as per one's age) below 70-75 also helps in the diagnosis.

Generally, mentally challenged children walk or talk much later than the ordinary ones. Children suffering from illness like meningitis or encephalitis or having a neurological disorder can suddenly experience difficulties in adaptation. Prenatal problems, heredity or environmental factors may also lead to the development of mental disability.

As per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), mental retardation can be of four types depending upon the levels of functioning of the individual: mild, moderate, severe and profound. 85 per cent of the mentally challenged population fall into the category of mildly mentally retarded, with an IQ level between 50 to 75. They can live on their own if supported by the community. About 10 percent fall into the moderately mentally retarded category with an IQ level between 35 and 50. With some supervision, they can also live a relatively normal life.

Severely mentally retarded people constitute about three to four percent of the mentally challenged population. They have an IQ level between 20 and 35, can clean and dress themselves and live in group homes. Those having an IQ level of less than 20 are categorized under profoundly mentally retarded. About one to two per cent falls into this category. Though these people can develop basic skills, they show other mental disorders and need constant supervision.

To treat mental retardation, doctors need to know the child's medical history and physical conditions. Mental problems arising due to severe illness or hormonal imbalance can be treated. However, there is no treatment available to change a child's intellectual abilities. Most treatments try and help the person to develop the daily functional and intellectual skills to a possible level. Many retarded children now get the opportunity to attend special schools where they are taught the basic skills. Various educational programs and extracurricular activities are developed in these special schools for these children. Training in independent living is also provided to the mentally challenged individuals as they approach adulthood.