Mental Retardation

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Questions Answered

What is mental retardation?

Mental retardation, also referred to as intellectual disability, is characterized by an extremely low score on mental ability or intelligence tests.  It also causes limitations on abilities in every day life such as communication, self-care and adapting to various social situations. There are several different levels of mental retardation; some very mild and some quite severe.  The level of disability can be defined by an IQ test as well as the amount of help and support the person needs to function. 

What causes mental retardation?

Mental retardation can occur in a child anytime before he or she reaches 18 years of age.  This includes before the child is actually born as well.  It is caused by disease, injury, or brain abnormality.  Some of the factors that may occur in a child to cause mental retardation include stroke, severe head injuries, and infections such as meningitis.  In most cases, the cause for this disability is unknown, but the most common known causes are Down Syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome, which begin before a child is born.  Much of the cases of mental retardation are caused by genetic conditions such as Cri-du-chat syndrome and congenital cytomegalovirus.  Also, some metabolic conditions can cause a new born baby to have a mental disability if treatment is not pursued immediately.  Examples of these conditions are congenital hypothyroidism and galactosemia.  

Can mental retardation be prevented?

Mental retardation cannot be prevented in most cases because it usually stems from uncontrollable birth defects or genetic conditions.  The one main type of mental retardation that can be prevented is when it is caused by fetal alcohol syndrome.  Pregnant women should avoid drinking alcohol during their term in order to avoid this from happening.  One other cause of mental retardation that can be prevented is kernictrus, which is a type of brain damage that forms when a baby has too much jaundice. High levels of bilirubin (the chemical in the liver that makes the baby's skin turn yellow when he or she has jaundice) can cause brain damage if it is not treated properly and immediately.

What are the myths about mental retardation?  

There are several myths about mental retardation that need to be understood.

The first myth is that this disability is hereditary.  Although some reasons behind mental retardation are caused by genetics, most of the underlying factors come from external sources.  This can include injury as well as preventive cases such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

The second myth is that mental retardation is caused by pregnant women not following food restrictions.  Although there may be some foods that women should steer away from, there is no real basis on restricting diets for pregnant women. 

The third myth is that children with mental disabilities are incapable of learning.  This is completely false. Those with mental retardation are very capable of learning, but the rate at which they learn and the amount of material they learn vary greatly from an average child with no disability.  The best thing to do to help a mentally disabled child is to continue working with them as much as possible with patience and dedication.  This will help them learn more and become more independent. 

One last myth about the mentally disabled is that they need to be protected from discipline and failure.  This goes back to helping them learn.  All people, no matter the disability, need discipline in order to learn from their mistakes.  If a person with mental retardation has a potential to fail at something, he or she will be able to learn from that experience.  The mentally disabled should not be denied the normal human experiences because they deserve the right to feel the emotions and learn to understand them.

There are many more myths that are linked to mental retardation, the cause and how to deal with it.  For more information, check out the resources page on the Web site for further reading.

How is mental retardation portrayed in the film (Benny & Joon/Gilbert Grape)?  

[See linked pages]

Is mental retardation portrayed accurately in these films?  

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What are the behaviors/symptoms of a person with mental retardation?

This is a list of the most common symptoms/behaviors of an individual with mental retardation:

  • Infantile behavior
  • Lack of curiosity
  • Slowed and decreasing learning abilities
  • Inability to perform educational demands at any level
  • Failure to meet various intellectual developmental stages
This is only a short list naming the most common symptoms. There are many other indications that a person is mentally disabled, but these are the most prominent.