Mental retardation is a condition marked by intellectual and developmental delays. This means a person functions at an intellectual or developmental level that is considered lower than normal. A person with this condition often has difficulty learning and performing basic tasks associated with daily living. A diagnosis of mental retardation doesn’t mean a person cannot learn, however. Instead, it means the person will probably need special help learning and reaching developmental milestones.
An individual is typically diagnosed with mental retardation before he reaches 18 years of age. Often, family members begin to suspect intellectual and developmental delays when a child reaches certain milestones at a slower-than-typical rate. For example, a child may be slower to develop motor skills than other children his age. He may take longer than usual to roll over or sit up. In some cases, a child may fail to develop some motor skills altogether.
In addition to the slow development of motor skills, a child with mental retardation may be slow to develop language and daily living skills. He may, for example, be incapable of brushing his own teeth or feeding himself. He may also have difficulty talking, start talking much later than other children his own age, or seem incapable of forming recognizable words at all. He may also have trouble adapting to change.
It can be difficult to pinpoint what causes a person to have developmental and intellectual disabilities. Before a baby is born, his mother may develop infections that lead to retardation. Prescription medications, illegal drugs, and alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to retardation as well. Sometimes a genetic abnormality causes the condition.
Among the problems that can lead to mental retardation after pregnancy are insufficient oxygen for the baby during childbirth and the development of a serious infection during infancy. The cause doesn’t always present itself early in life, however. A serious head injury can lead to retardation at any age.
In cases of severe mental retardation, children may be diagnosed at a very young age because the symptoms are so obvious. When a child is only mildly retarded, however, his symptoms may not be diagnosed until he has begun to attend school or even later. If family members and doctors suspect mental retardation, a doctor typically uses developmental screening tests to diagnose it. Unfortunately, there is no cure. Instead, treatment usually focuses on special education techniques designed to help a developmentally disabled person to learn and develop.