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Mental Retardation
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Introduction and Nature of Mental Retardation
Tammi Reynolds, BA & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Nature of Mental Retardation

Mental Retardation is a diagnostic classification denoting significantly low intellectual functioning or other brain functioning problems. It is not a disease in of itself.

Classification of mental retardation indicates that developmental immaturities are present in the form of intellectual deficits, and often emotional deficits as well. This immaturity interferes with an individual's ability to function at age-appropriate levels and makes independent living a challenging proposition. A mentally retarded individual's cognitive abilities are impaired. This means that they acquire new information slowly and have difficulty understanding complex concepts.

Cognitive Functioning

Mental retardation is defined by sub-average intellectual ability. General intelligence quotient (IQ) scores for mentally retarded individuals are, by definition, seventy (70) or below. By definition, this score is set two standard deviations below the average IQ of 100, and only occurs about 2.5 percent of the time when considered against the entire distribution of IQ scores in the population. Because of these intellectual deficits, mentally retarded individuals' ability to learn is impaired. Language processing and logical thinking deficits are often present, as are impairments in reasoning and problem-solving abilities. Mental retardation interferes with language processing and impairs judgment and analytical skills.

Although the disorder affects an individual's capacity for learning, mental retardation is not a learning disorder in the academic sense. Mental retardation is distinguished from learning disabilities that are specific to academic learning such as dyslexia (a reading and writing disorder) and dyscalculia (a math disorder) in that it is more general in nature. In mental retardation, learning abilities are impaired generally, rather than in specific areas. Learning disabilities relate to specific deficits in the ability to acquire academic skills like reading and math, while mental retardation relates to basic and broad impairments in cognitive functioning that affect the individual's ability to process and retain information across the board.

Emotional Functioning

Mental retardation often affects people emotionally as well as intellectually. Many mentally retarded people function on an emotional and social level that is below what is appropriate for their age. This emotional immaturity is often considered an endearing aspect of mentally retarded individuals' personalities, however. Mentally retarded individuals are commonly thought of as being friendly, lovable, and possessing a child like quality in their overall personality.

The emotional maturity of individuals who are diagnosed with mental retardation is generally a function of how severely impaired they are. Severely mentally retarded individuals are generally more emotionally immature than are individuals with mild mental retardation.