The term “mental retardation” is an often-misunderstood term and since it is seen as derogatory in the general public we use the term “intellectual disability.” In general people believe that retardation is only diagnosed on the basis of below-normal intelligence (IQ), and that those with intellectual disabilities are unable to learn or to care for themselves. This is actually not true. In order to be diagnosed as a person with intellectual disabilities, the individual has to have both a significantly low IQ and considerable problems in everyday functioning. Most of those with intellectual disabilities can learn a great deal, and in adulthood can lead at least partially independent lives. The reason for this is like anything else there are degrees of impairment and most individuals with intellectual disabilities have only a mild level of impairment. However, those with intellectual disabilities may also have several different physical and emotional complications. For instance, they may have difficulty with hearing, sight or speech.
There was a time when parents were advised to institutionalize a child with significant intellectual disabilities. Today, on the other hand, the goal is to help the child with intellectual disabilities stay in the family and take part in community life. This is made easier by the fact that in most states, educational and other services are guaranteed at public expense.
Since every individual is unique in his or her impairments, it is very important that the child has a comprehensive evaluation to find out about his or her strengths and areas of growth needed. Due to the fact that no specialist has all the necessary skills, many professionals might be involved. General medical tests as well as tests in areas such as neurology (the nervous system), psychiatry, psychology, special education, hearing, speech, vision, and physical therapy are often useful. A pediatrician or a child and adolescent psychiatrist often coordinates these tests. Serving as a central coordination point for these services, physicians refer the child for the necessary tests and consultations, put together the results, and jointly with the family and the school develop a comprehensive treatment and education plan.
In addition to the intellectual disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders may be present and may interfere with the child’s progress. Most children with intellectual disabilities recognize that they are behind others of their own age. Some may become frustrated, withdrawn or anxious, or act “bad” to get the attention of other youngsters and adults. Adolescents and young adults with intellectual disabilities may become depressed as they gradually become more aware that they are different. It is important to keep in mind that since they may not have enough language skills to talk about their feelings, their depression may be shown by new problems, such as in their behavior, eating and sleeping.
Keep in mind that early diagnosis of psychiatric disorders in children with intellectual disabilities leads to early treatment and that medications may be helpful as ONE part of an overall treatment plan in those with intellectual disabilities. Periodic consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist can help the family in setting appropriate expectations, limits, opportunities to succeed, and other measures, which will help their child, handle the stresses of growing up.