What Is Severe Mental Retardation?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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Severe mental retardation is a type of mental disability. A diagnosis of mental retardation is made when a patient’s intellect and engagement with the world develop significantly more slowly than is typical, making it impossible for him or her to live without assistance. Many different factors can cause this condition. A patient with severe mental retardation may benefit from therapy and treatment designed to foster intellectual activity and ability.

The symptoms of severe mental retardation are often mental and behavioral, rather than physical, although, in some cases, mental symptoms are linked to more complicated syndromes that present other related symptoms as well. Language skills and social skills typically develop very slowly, and may not develop at all in a person with very severe mental retardation. A lack of curiosity is quite common among children with severe mental retardation, and this lack of engagement and interest may be an early indicator of the condition. Impaired cognitive functioning, often measured as an IQ below 70 is a common indicator of retardation. Children with severe retardation typically have a significantly lower IQ.


People with mild or moderate mental retardation can often develop the skills needed to live independently, so long as they are given additional assistance and training. Men and women with severe mental retardation are less likely to be able to master basic life skills. A person with a very severe form of this condition might continue to interact with the world as would an infant and might require supportive care throughout his or her life.

This condition has a wide variety of different causes, and in many cases, no cause can be identified. Some genetic problems can cause this condition, and many of these can be screened for. Other genetic problems occur during the actual process of conception and development, and can be detected only after a child has been conceived.

In other cases, severe mental retardation may be caused by environmental factors. A number of infections can damage a fetus or a small child and lead to this condition. Certain toxic substances, most notably lead, can cause retardation, particularly when encountered by very young children or fetuses. Physical injury can damage the brain, and certain sorts of physical brain damage may manifest as severe mental retardation.

The treatment and prognosis for this condition vary on a case-by-case basis. Additional training in life skills can enable some people with this condition to live relatively independent lives. In other cases, learning and progress are more limited. Each case and each prognosis depends on many different factors.


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