Mental Retardation – Criteria and Lingering Questions

I must admit, I hesitated to write this blog. Experience has shown that some parents are extremely sensitive to the use of the term “mental retardation” when describing their children. I absolutely understand this. There can be very negative connotations with those two words, especially when neuro-typical kids use “retard” as a playground slur. I considered calling the blog “Cognitive Disabilities” or “Cognitive Delays,” but all the current literature I ran across (as recent as 2006) still use “mental retardation” (MR) as the diagnostic term to describe intellectual ability that is significantly below average.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the standard, accepted guide which gives criteria for mental disorders of all kinds. Its most recent revision took place in 2000, and it is scheduled to release a new edition in 2011. As of the writing of this blog, the DSM still uses the term “Mental Retardation” as a medical classification and gives criteria which is primarily based upon a child’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ). I will explain IQ in a future blog.

Approximately 3 out of 100 people have MR, and most of these cases are mild. Here is a very simplified breakdown of the criteria given:

  • The child has significantly sub-average intellectual functioning with an IQ of 70 or below.
  • The child has difficulty with regular functioning in multiple areas of living.
  • The onset is prior to age 18.

Subcategories of Mental Retardation (MR) include:

  • Mild MR – IQ range of 35-40 to 50-55.
  • Severe MR – IQ range of 20-25 to 35-40.
  • Profound MR – IQ below 20-25. This category tends to include children who have a specific diagnosis for a known neurological problem. It also includes an increased risk for seizures, motor impairments, trouble with communication, psychiatric disorders, psychosis, etc.

Fortunately there has been a great movement for change in the last few decades, and where previously these kids were warehoused or institutionalized, they are now being cared for in loving homes and have access to early educational intervention and programs such as occupational, cognitive, speech, and physical therapies.

The primary consideration when teaching these children is to focus on life-skills training with the goal being that the child achieves the greatest level of independence possible.

Whether or not these children should be mainstreamed has been a source of controversy for educators and parents. Some believe that they have every right to be included in classrooms with peers their own age. I agree with this. Yet some argue that this puts an unfair burden on teachers, who have to shift a great deal of their focus on the special needs child and therefore end-up depriving the other students.

Questions for Parents and Teachers

If you parent a child with a cognitive disability, how do you feel about the term “mental retardation?” Should it be discontinued or replaced with something less deragatory? What term would you suggest?

How do you feel about mainstreaming these children? What suggestions do you have for making inclusion a positive experience for everyone involved?

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here. Some links on this blog may have been generated by outside sources are not necessarily endorsed by Kristyn Crow.