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The U.S. Department of Education defines mental retardation as “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a child’s educational performance” (34 C.F.R., Sec. 300.7[b]). The American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) defines it in a similar way: “Mental retardation is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. This disability originates before age 18” (AAMR 2002, p. 1). Finally, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) describes the disorder as “characterized by significantly subaverage intellectual functioning (an IQ of approximately 70 or below) with onset before age 18 years and concurrent with deficits or impairments in adaptive functioning” (APA 2000, p. 37). Each of the three definitions has the inclusion of an impairment of adaptive functioning in common, while only the DSM-IV lists a specific intellectual quotient (IQ) score. Thus, the two major characteristics of mental retardation are limitations in intellectual functioning and limitation in adaptive behavior.
Limitations in Intellectual Functioning
Intelligence refers to an individual’s cognitive ability to think, reason, problem solve, remember information, learn skills, and generalize knowledge from one setting or situation to another. This ability level is often described using an intelligence quotient obtained from assessment with one or more individually administered standardized intelligence tests, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children III or the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales (SB5). Significantly subaverage intellectual functioning is defined as an IQ of 70 or below (approximately two standard deviations below the mean). Regardless of IQ, individuals with mental retardation have impaired functioning in memory (especially short-term memory), generalization (transferring learned knowledge or behavior from one task to another or from one setting to another), and decreased motivation (which may result from repeated failures).
Limitations in Adaptive Behavior
Adaptive behavior refers to an individual’s ability to perform successfully in various environments. Skill limitations occur in three primary domains as defined by AAMR (2002)—conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. Conceptual skills include self-determination, reading, and writing, while social skills involve taking responsibility and following rules. The individual with mental retardation will also have difficulty with daily living and employment skills. Age, cultural expectations, and environmental demands will all influence the individual’s adaptive behavior.
Several classification systems have been developed to more clearly define the range of mental retardation. Each method reflects the attempts of a particular discipline (e.g., education or medicine) to explain the needs of the individual with mental retardation. Most classification systems are based on the necessary supports required by these individuals to function optimally in the home and community. Severity of condition is characterized in the DSM-IV (2000) as mild, moderate, severe, and profound, with mild describing the highest level of performance and profound describing the lowest level. Separate codes are provided for each level, as well as for mental retardation, severity unspecified.
Individuals with mild mental retardation have been termed educationally as educable in the past, with an IQ range of 50–55 to approximately 70. This constitutes the largest segment (about 85 percent) of the group of individuals with mental retardation.
Individuals with moderate mental retardation have an IQ range of 35–40 to 50–55, and were once referred to by the outdated educational term trainable. This term wrongly implies that these individuals can only be “trained” and will not benefit from educational programming. Approximately 10 percent of the population of individuals with mental retardation is classified in this range.
The group categorized as severe makes up 3 to 4 percent of the population with mental retardation, while those with profound mental retardation constitute extremely low numbers of individuals (1–2 percent). The IQ level for severe mental retardation ranges from 20–25 to 35–40, and the IQ range for profound mental retardation is below 20–25.
Mental retardation, severity unspecified is used most often when there is a strong indication of mental retardation, but the individual’s intelligence is untestable using standardized assessments. This occurs when individuals are too impaired or uncooperative for testing.
Public education for students with mental retardation is a relatively new concept, particularly for those with the most significant disabilities. In the past, the emphasis on academic achievement (i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic) in public school programs made access difficult for these students. With the passage in 1975 of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, Public Law 94-142 (now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA), public schools were required to provide both access and an appropriate education for all students, including those with mental retardation. The U.S. Department of Education (2002) indicated that approximately 94 percent of students with mental retardation between age six and twenty-one attend general education school, with 14 percent being served in a regular class at least 80 percent of the time.
The 1986 amendments to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act provided services to preschool-age children with disabilities, while the 1997 amendments provided for programming for infants and toddlers (birth to age two). Children with mild mental retardation may exhibit developmental delays when compared to their same-age peers. Intervention based on a developmental milestone approach is provided in either the natural environment (home-based intervention for infants and toddlers) or in preschool programs. Education focuses on assisting young children to develop, remedy, or adapt the skills appropriate for their chronological age.
Educational programs at the elementary level for children with mental retardation focus on decreasing the child’s dependence on others and teaching adaptation to the environment. This generally includes facilitating the development of motor, self-help, social, communication, and academic skills. Students with mental retardation benefit from either basic or functional academic programs. A significant relationship exists between the level of retardation present and success in both reading and mathematics. The critical element is the teaching of functional academics that will aid the child’s independence. For example, Diane Browder and Martha Snell describe functional academics as “simply the most useful parts of the three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic” (2000, p. 497). Useful is defined on an individual basis, and is determined by that which will support the child’s current daily routines, predicted future needs, and the priorities of the family.
The goal of programs for adolescents with mental retardation is to increase independence, enhance opportunities for participation in the community, prepare for future employment, and aid in the student’s transition from school to adult life. Programming includes the development of skills in personal care and self-help, leisure activities, and access to community programs and supports. Employment preparation is undertaken with consideration of both functioning level and preference—the environment and tasks the individual enjoys.
Determining the Causes of Mental Retardation
There are two categories of causes of mental retardation according to the American Association on Mental Retardation (2002, p. 126). One category involves timing, when the mental retardation occurred, and the other involves type, what factors were responsible for the mental retardation.
Timing is determined by onset of the disability—prenatal (before birth), perinatal (at birth), or postnatal (after birth). While research by Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp and colleagues (1997) showed that 12 percent of school-age children with mental retardation had a prenatal cause, 6 percent had a perinatal cause, and 4 percent had a postnatal cause, probable cause could not be determined for 78 percent of the children.
Type of cause is divided into four separate categories. Biomedical factors relate to biologic processes such as genetic disorders or nutrition. Down syndrome is a wellknown genetic disorder for which mental retardation is characteristic. Mark Batshaw and Bruce Shapiro (2002) describe social factors that involve adverse influences related to social, behavioral, and educational areas, such as stimulation and adult responsiveness. Behavioral factors relate to behaviors with the potential to cause mental retardation, such as dangerous activities or maternal substance abuse. Finally, educational factors are related to the availability of supports that promote mental development. For example, mothers who lack information about prenatal health are more likely to have children with mental retardation. There is also a strong relationship between poverty and mental retardation. Of course, many of these factors evoke the age-old argument of “nature versus nurture” and whether ability is related more to sociocultural influences or genetics.
Societal Stigma And Labeling
There is considerable controversy about labeling and its consequences on both the individual and his or her family. Labels can be helpful in acquiring services, but the stigma attached to mental retardation can cause others to regard the individual as less than what they truly are. Stereotypical images of mental retardation are extremely difficult to change. People with mental retardation are at a higher risk of wrongful convictions for crimes. The label can also lead to segregation in educational placement, work, and the community. Because of the stigma attached to mental retardation, people with this disability often become adept at hiding it. Focus must be placed on the supports necessary for independence and success rather than on the individual’s limitations.
- American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR). Mental Retardation: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Supports. 10th ed. Washington, DC: Author.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). 4th ed., text rev. Washington, DC: Author.
- Batshaw, Mark , and Bruce K. Shapiro. 2002. Mental Retardation. In Children with Disabilities, ed. Mark L. Batshaw. 5th ed., 287–305. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
- Browder, Diane , and Martha E. Snell. 2000. Teaching Functional Academics. In Instruction of Students with Severe Disabilities, eds. Martha E. Snell and Fredda Brown, 493–542. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
- Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 20 S.C. 1400. 1975.
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (Public Law 105–17), F.R. 300. 1997.
- Roid, Gale 2003. Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales (SB5). 5th ed. Itasca, IL: Riverside.
- U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Service. 1987. To Assure the Free Appropriate Education of All Handicapped Children. In Ninth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act. Washington, DC: Office of Special Education Programs.
- U.S. Department of Education. 2001. To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Children with Disabilities: Twenty-third Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Author.
- U.S. Department of Education. 2002. To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Children with Disabilities: Twenty-fourth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Wechsler, D 1991. Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children III (WISC-III). San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation. Yeargin-Allsopp, Marshalyn, Catherine Murphy, José Cordero, et al. 1997. Reported Biomedical Causes and Associated
- Medical Conditions for Mental Retardation among 10-yearold Children, Metropolitan Atlanta, 1985 to Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology 39 (3): 142–149.
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