Mental Retardation

Mental retardation is an intellectual disability that results in intellectual capabilities significantly below average. Mental retardation can interfere with learning, the ability to care for oneself, and the ability to meet general societal expectations about how to behave. It is generally defined as an IQ below 70, although people with IQs slightly above this number may have extreme difficulty functioning while people with IQs slightly below this number may not have such difficulties. Historically, the diagnosis was given to anyone with a low IQ, but in contemporary psychology mental retardation has an adjustment component and below-average intelligence alone is not sufficient to warrant a diagnosis.

What Causes Mental Retardation?
To be diagnosed with mental retardation, symptoms must be present in childhood. Adults who experience a loss in cognitive functioning may be diagnosed with another illness such as dementia. A number of factors can cause mental retardation, including:

  • Down Syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome significantly increase a person’s risk of mental retardation, though not all people with these conditions have mental retardation.
  • Improper development during pregnancy can contribute to the development of symptoms, and exposure to certain drugs in utero—particularly illegal drugs and alcohol—greatly increases a fetus’ risk of being born with mental retardation.
  • Illness and infection that affect the brain may lead to the condition, and very high fevers in early childhood can cause mental retardation. Measles and meningitis may also contribute to the development of mental retardation.

In as many as half of all cases, the cause of mental retardation is not known.

Is There Treatment for Mental Retardation?
In previous generations, people diagnosed with mental retardation might spend their entire lives in asylums. Contemporary clinicians, however, focus on teaching life skills, providing early interventions, and increasing independence and autonomy whenever possible. People with mental retardation may be able to live on their own depending upon the severity of their condition.

Mental Retardation and Culture
People with mental retardation frequently prefer the term intellectual disability rather than retardation. The term “retarded” has become a loaded term in U.S. culture, often used inappropriately as an insult with negative connotations. Some people with mental retardation struggle to avoid being defined by their disability and often face obstacles that interfere with their desire for independence and recognition as autonomous human beings.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Last Updated: 08-11-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • Cynthia

    December 29th, 2021 at 3:12 PM

    I’m looking for a counselor that specializes in patients with mental retardation. Can you refer me to anyone?

  • JON

    October 29th, 2022 at 8:25 AM

    need help

  • Charlotte

    October 31st, 2022 at 6:39 PM

    Dear Jon, thank you for commenting on our blog. Sometimes it helps to talk to a professional. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are welcome to call us for personal assistance in finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Mountain Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext 3. Kind regards, The GoodTherapy Team

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