Intellectual Disability (Mental Retardation) In Children

Intellectual Disability (Mental Retardation) In Children

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that as many as 10-20% of all children and adolescents have some form of mental disability. Parenting itself is a tough job, and those with children who are intellectually disabled can be in a difficult spot. However, due to the negative stigma attached, most people are unaware that there are different degrees of mental retardation. Discussed below are some of the issues involved and how you can help your child lead a healthy life.

What is Mental Retardation?

This classification is given to children with poor IQ, typically in the range of 70-75 or less. They also have low adaptive skills meaning social skills and a sharp learning curve is virtually non-existent. Mentally disabled children are slower than their peers in acquiring life skills such as speech development or logic.

Types of Mental Retardation in Kids

Mental retardation has been stereotyped by movies and television shows. These have made people believe that a mentally disabled person is someone who is slow and dim-witted, often ridiculed as the village idiot. In reality, this disability is nuanced with different scales of limitation, and there is room for improvement for those afflicted.

Mental Retardation in Kids

  • Mild Intellectual Disability: More than 85% of kids with the disability fall in this category and have no trouble until shortly before high school. With an IQ of around 55-70, they are sometimes unable to grasp abstract concepts but can by and large function independently.
  • Moderate Intellectual Disability: Falling under the IQ range of 35-54, they constitute about 10% of the children that are afflicted with mental retardation. These children can be integrated into society as they can pick up speech and essential life skills. However, their academic performance is likely to be dismal and would fare poorly in school. These children can have some amount of autonomy but cannot remain independent for a long duration.
  • Severe Intellectual Disability: With an IQ of 20-34, these kids are in a minority of 3-4% of the mentally challenged child population. Through extensive training, these kids may be able to learn necessary life skills but would need to live in a sheltered home to avoid stressful situations.
  • Profound Intellectual Disability: This is the most severe form of disability and is also the rarest, with only 1-2% of mentally challenged children constituting this group. They are severely handicapped and require extensive supervision due to poor life skills. With regular training and setting a routine, they may be able to pick up essential life functions.

Causes of Mental Retardation in Children

Some of the reasons include:

  • Genetic: Over 30% of mental retardation is attributed to genetics. These children are likely to suffer from problems such as Down Syndrome and fragile X syndrome.
  • Head Trauma: A severe head injury can cause inflammation in the brain. This can change the mental state of the child and lead to difficulties in memory, attention and reasoning.
  • Pregnancy-Related Issues: Pregnant women who do recreational drugs, smoke and drink alcohol can severely affect the brain development of the foetus.
  • Illness: Children suffering from measles can develop encephalitis which causes mental retardation. Infants suffering from congenital hyperthyroidism are also at the risk of poor brain development.
  • Exposure To Toxic Materials: Elements such as mercury, lead and cadmium are known to be linked with a reduction in intellectual growth.

Mental Retardation Signs and Symptoms in Children

Not every child is the same. The signs and symptoms of psychological retardation deffer with different children. Here are a few:

  • Difficulty in articulating a point
  • Learning speech at a slower rate
  • Misplacing objects
  • Having trouble remembering things
  • Poor academic performance
  • Overall Low Intelligence
  • Poor performance in IQ tests
  • Particular attention required to learn simple skills
  • Have trouble putting on clothes
  • Behavioural Symptoms
    • Aggression
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Impulsive
    • The tendency to inflict injury on self
    • Suicidal thoughts
    • Poor interpersonal relationships
    • Excessive dependency on parents
    • Unable to respond to situations in a measured manner
    • Low attention span

Characteristics of Mentally Disabled Kids

Mentally disabled, also known as differently abled kids portray the following characteristics.

Characteristics of Mentally Disabled Kids

  • Bad Memory: These kids have a short-term memory recall. However, when doing a task repeatedly, they can recall information without displaying any symptoms of mental retardation.
  • Slow Learning Curve: Their ability to process new information is relatively low when compared to other kids. That does not mean they are incapable of learning. Some educationists are of the view that a slowing down of the instructions can help in better reception of the information.
  • Attention Deficiency: They are unable to sustain their attention for too long on a single task. A good way of tackling this deficiency is by making them aware of the most crucial aspect of the work and then building their attention from there on.
  • Disinterest: Due to repeated failures, some children don’t trust their skills, even if they are correct. Over time they lose faith in their abilities and become disinterested in learning.
  • Independent Living: One of the brighter side children with special needs can be trained in repetitive tasks which they can master over time. This can help them stay independent for a short duration of time and also prepare them for adulthood.
  • Inability to Restrain Emotions: As children grow older, they can give measured responses when faced with unknown situations. Children with mental disabilities are unable to do this and may respond unpredictably, usually displaying aggression. Once the episode is over, they can sense that they have misbehaved and are capable of feeling like they are a burden.
  • Social Development: Due to bizarre outbursts and poor language skills, they may be unable to have healthy social interactions.
  • Application of New Ideas: They are unable to incorporate any newly acquired skills innovatively.


There a few ways to diagnose mental retardation in kids.

  • Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale: This test gauges quantitative reasoning, knowledge, fluid reasoning, visual-spatial processing and memory. It is one of the primary tests that identify learning disorders in children.
  • Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children: This test is used to assess the cognitive development of a child. The types of tests administered are wide-ranging and vary based on the age of the child. This test is not a stand-alone test, meaning that the results of this analysis must be seen in conjunction with other tests.
  • Bayley Scale of Infant Development: This is a standardised test for infants between 1-42 months of age. Motor, language and cognitive skills are tested. This, in turn, helps to screen out children who are prone to having development problems in the future.


There is no medical “cure” for mental retardation. However, there are ways in which you can enrich their lives and help them have a pleasant childhood.

Treating Mental Retardation

  • Stem Cell Therapy: This can be beneficial for children who have Down Syndrome. While it cannot eliminate Down Syndrome, it can help repair any damaged cells which help in improving their cognitive abilities.
  • Acupuncture: Studies have shown that children who given this form of treatment saw a marked increase in IQ tests as well as social skills.
  • Home Schooling: As the pace of learning is slow, homeschooling is a good option where the child can thrive in a protected environment. If the child is auditory rather than visual, the entire learning experience can be changed based on the child’s needs. This flexibility would not be available in schools.
  • Special Needs Schools: These schools have other children with disabilities studying under the same roof. The classes are conducted at a slower pace, and hence the children can grasp the concepts quickly.


  • Pregnant women should avoid doing drugs, smoking or drinking as it can lead to neural defects in the child.
  • Children should be immunised against diseases that cause mental disorders such as measles.
  • Women suffering from hyperthyroidism need to get treated as it can lead to a foetus with neural defects.

Problems Faced by Mentally Retarded Children

Common challenges faced by developmentally disabled children are as follows:

  • Social Isolation: Perceived as slow, these kids are often ostracised by their peers. All it takes is one rumour, and most kids would start avoiding a mentally disabled child. Not just them, even the ones who try to befriend them are ridiculed.
  • Bullying: People fear what they can’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer. The inability of children or even adults to understand the needs of a mentally disabled child can breed hatred, fear and contempt. Many kids with disabilities must face ridicule from their peers and are often called unflattering names.
  • Low Self Esteem: Consistently poor academic performance can have a negative impact on their psyche. Complex topics might be difficult to grasp for any child. However, poor academic performance in natural subjects where their peers outclass them may make them have a low opinion of themselves.
  • Loneliness: Due to social isolation and bullying, many children with mental disabilities suffer from loneliness.
  • Medical Problems: Children that suffer from profound mental retardation are likely to have other health complications as well. These could include reduced vision, hearing issues, poor motor function, etc.

Parenting Tips to Help in Raising a Child with an Intellectual Disability

Parents can play a significant role in treating and raising a child with an intellectual disability. Here are a few tips to help build a differently-abled child:

Differently Able Kids

  • Encourage Independence: Children with mental disabilities have a slow learning curve. A parent telling their child that he cannot do anything will make him even more dependent and foster low self-esteem. One method to make kids independent is by breaking down complex tasks/ideas into simple ones.
  • Follow Up On Academic Progress: Be active at parent-teacher meetings to find out what are the strengths and weaknesses of your child. Parent-teacher conferences can be an excellent forum where you can keep track of your child’s development. It can also be a place where a healthy exchange of ideas can take place.
  • Socialise: Many parents limit their child’s interactions with others in a bid to protect them. Then there are others who wish to avoid unpleasant situations. While these are legitimate reasons, making a child socially active would foster a sense of normalcy.
  • Network: Taking care of a child with disabilities is difficult for parents. Often there are instances when parents go into depression or bickering takes place between the couple. It can be helpful to know that there are other parents out there who are going through the same ordeal. Networking helps parents a lot, as it not just acts as a support group but also becomes a place where parents can share their experiences and ideas to come up with new ways of raising kids with disabilities.
  • Educate Themselves: Raising a mentally challenged child may be difficult, and counselling sessions with experts can help in overcoming these difficulties. Even if you are unable to meet an expert, buy books such as:
    • When your Child has Disabilities by M.L. Batshaw
    • A Parent’s and Teacher’s Guide to the Special Needs Child by Darrell M. Parker
  • Routine: Develop a habit that can be followed by your kid as it can help them feel secure. School can be stressful, and a safe environment at home with a predictable routine can help them feel secure.
  • Praise and Reward: Due to the challenges they face every day, low self-esteem issues are typical, and they need constant appreciation and affection to overcome those. Encouragement through a reward system can help boost their self-confidence. However, avoid any negative punishments as it is likely to demotivate them.
  • Behaviour Management: Children with mental disabilities may find it difficult to cope with certain situations. In such cases, it is essential that they don’t dwell on their inability to comprehend those things. Diverting their mind would be a good idea in such situations. Something as simple as giving them headphones and making them listen to music would help in diverting their mind.

Many children who have intellectual challenges have in time, learned to overcome their disability and live healthy lives. Even the most difficult cases, children have responded well to proper treatment with many showing a semblance of normalcy.