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Intellectual Disability
(Cognitive Disability, Developmental Disability, Mental Retardation)

Intellectual disability, also referred to as cognitive disability, developmental disability, or mental retardation, is a disability that begins in childhood. People with intellectual disability have limitations in their mental functioning and in their ability to communicate, socialize, and take care of their everyday needs. Some cases of intellectual disability can be prevented with proper medical care.

Children diagnosed with an intellectual disability are most successful when they get help early in life. If you suspect that your child may have an intellectual disability, contact your doctor.

Several hundred causes of intellectual disability have been discovered, but many are still unknown. The most common ones are:
  • Genetic conditions, resulting from:
    • Abnormal genes inherited from parents
    • Errors when genes combine
    • Other factors
  • Issues during pregnancy:
    • Smoking
    • Use of drugs or alcohol that affect the developing fetus
    • Malnourishment
    • Contraction of certain illnesses/infections while pregnant
  • Problems at birth:
    • Premature delivery or low birth weight
    • Baby doesn’t get enough oxygen during birth
    • Baby is injured during birth
  • Problems during childhood:
    • Illnesses such as chicken pox, whooping cough, and measles
    • Exposure to lead, mercury, and other toxins
    • Head injury or near drowning
Risk Factors:
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of getting a disease or condition. A child could be at higher risk for intellectual disability due to any of the causes listed above, or due to mental retardation in other family members. If you are concerned that your child is at risk, tell your doctor.

Symptoms appear before a child reaches age 18 and vary depending on the degree of the intellectual disability. If you think your child has any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to intellectual disability. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If your child experiences any one of them, contact your pediatrician.

Symptoms include:

  • Learning and developing more slowly than other children the same age
  • Difficulty communicating or socializing with others
  • Lower than average scores on intelligence (IQ) tests
  • Trouble learning in school
  • Inability to do everyday things like getting dressed or using the bathroom without help
  • Difficulty hearing, seeing, walking, or talking
  • Inability to think logically
Your doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Standardized tests may be given that measure:
  • Intelligence – Intelligent Quotient (IQ) tests measure a person’s ability to do things such as think abstractly, learn, and solve problems. A child may have intellectual disability if he or she has an IQ score of approximately 70 or below.
  • Adaptive behavior – skills needed to function in everyday life, including:
    • Conceptual skills like reading and writing
    • Social skills like responsibility and self-esteem
    • Practical skills like the ability to eat, use the bathroom and get dressed

Because children with mental retardation have a higher risk for other disabilities (such as hearing impairment, visual problems, or orthopedic conditions), other testing may be necessary to check for other conditions that may require treatment.

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for your child. Treatment is most helpful if it begins early in life. Treatment includes:
  • Family counseling
  • Human development training (emotional skills, hand-eye coordination, etc.)
  • Special education programs
  • Life skills training (preparing food, bathing, etc.)
  • Job coaching
  • Social opportunities
  • Housing services
To help reduce your child’s chances of becoming mentally retarded, take the following steps:
  • During pregnancy:
    • Don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs.
    • Eat a healthful diet – one that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
    • Add extra folic acid to your diet.
    • See your doctor regularly.
  • After birth:
    • Have your newborn screened for conditions that may produce mental retardation.
    • Have your child properly immunized.
    • Schedule regular visits to the pediatrician.
    • Use child safety seats and bicycle helmets.
    • Remove lead-based paint from your home.
    • Keep poisonous household products out of reach.
    • Avoid aspirin use. Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving a child aspirin.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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