What are the characteristics of mental retardation?

The main features of mental retardation include a lower than average intelligence quotient (IQ), difficulty with practical daily living skills, learning difficulties or disabilities, developmental delays, memory problems, and shorter attention spans. Not all people diagnosed with mental retardation will show all of the common features, but most of them are present to some degree in most people with mental retardation. Mental retardation can also be related to physical disabilities and an abnormal physical appearance.

There are four main classifications of mental retardation: mild, moderate, severe, and profound. The features of mental retardation are more pronounced in people who have severe and profound retardation. However, people who have been diagnosed with mild retardation make up the majority of mental retardation diagnoses, and these people can often learn to function in society at a basic level despite their handicaps.

IQ tests are an important part of mental retardation diagnoses. People with mental retardation have IQs that are at least two-thirds lower than the average IQ for their age groups. Their lower general intelligence levels are why people with mental retardation struggle to learn in academic and social settings. As children, they often require special teachers or classrooms to help them learn. Teaching a child with mental retardation basic skills, such as personal hygiene, generally requires more time and repetition than it takes to teach a child of average intelligence the same skills.

Developmental delays are common features of mental retardation and are present to some degree in all people with mental retardation. Children with mental retardation often do not speak until later in life, if they learn to communicate through speech. Physical delays are also common, particularly with regard to coordination, balance, and dexterity. Children born with certain syndromes, such as Down syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome, are particularly prone to delays in physical development.

Memory problems and short attention spans are other common features of mental retardation. These signs usually manifest early in life for children born with mental retardation. People who experience trauma resulting in brain damage later in life often show these characteristics as well. People with mental retardation often find it difficult or even impossible to focus on a particular task or concept for more than a short period of time. Shorter attention spans often make memory problems more pronounced because people who can't focus enough to learn a task or concept have trouble recalling information later.

Each patient's situation is unique in some way, so other features of mental retardation may be present in some people but may be undetectable. For example, many people with mental retardation who can speak have difficulties with pronunciation and sentence structure, although many people with mild retardation can speak normally. Many people with mental retardation also suffer from related disorders and problems, such as seizures, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, autism, and behavioral disorders.

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