ERIC Identifier: ED372593 Publication Date: 1994-09-00
Author: Hawkins-Shepard, Charlotte Source: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
Mental Retardation. ERIC Digest E528.
A definition for mental retardation is found in Public Law 101-476, the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990:
Mental retardation means significantly subaverage general intellectual
functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and
manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a child's
Register, 57(189), September 29, 1992, p.44801]
In its 1992 manual on definition and classification, the American Association
on Mental Retardation (AAMR) offers the following definition:
Mental retardation refers to substantial limitations in present functioning.
It is characterized by significantly subaverage intellectual functioning,
existing concurrently with related limitations in two or more of the following
applicable adaptive skill areas: Communication, self-care, home living, social
skills, community use, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics,
leisure and work. Mental retardation manifests before age 18.
Significantly subaverage intellectual functioning means an IQ score of 70 to
75 or below on a standardized individual intelligence test. Related limitations
refers to adaptive skill limitations that are related more to functional
applications than other circumstances such as cultural diversity or sensory
HOW DOES THE NEW AAMR DEFINITION DIFFER FROM EARLIER
The 1992 AAMR definition represents a significant change in the way
those with mental retardation are viewed. Rather than describing mental
retardation as a state of global incompetence, the new definition refers to a
pattern of limitations, looking at how people function in various contexts of
everyday life. This definition is based on four assumptions: (1) Valid
assessment considers cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as differences
in communication and behavioral factors; (2) The existence of limitations in
adaptive skills occurs within the context of community environments typical of
the individual's age peers and is indexed to the person's individualized needs
for support; (3) Specific adaptive limitations often coexist with strengths in
other adaptive skills or other personal capabilities; (4) With appropriate
supports over a sustained period, the life functioning of the person with mental
retardation generally will improve.
Rather than limiting assessment to intellectual and adaptive skills, the
current AAMR definition relies upon a multidimensional approach to describing
individuals and evaluating their responses to present growth, environmental
changes, educational activities, and therapeutic interventions:
I: Intellectual functioning and adaptive skills
The concept of supports, as described by AAMR, refers to certain resources
and strategies provided to persons with mental retardation that enhance their
independence/interdependence, productivity, community integration, and
satisfaction. These supports can come from technology, individuals, and agencies
or service providers. Supports can be grouped into eight types of function: (1)
befriending, (2) financial planning, (3) employee assistance, (4) behavioral
support, (5) in-home living assistance, (6) community access and use, (7) health
assistance, (8) teaching (Schalock et al., 1994).
The AAMR concept of supports includes assigning one of four levels of
intensity to each support: (1) intermittent, or "as needed," which are seen as
short-term supports, such as during an acute medical crisis; (2) limited, which
are those supports needed regularly, but for a short period of time, such as
employee assistance to remediate a job-related skill deficit; (3) extensive,
seen as ongoing and regular, such as long-term home living support; (4)
pervasive, viewed as constant and potentially life-sustaining, such as attendant
care, skilled medical care, or help with taking medications.
The current AAMR definition involves a three-step procedure for diagnosing,
classifying, and determining the needed supports of an individual with mental
retardation: (1) determine eligibility for supports (IQ 70-75 or below,
significant disabilities in two or more adaptive skill areas, age of onset below
18); (2) identify strengths and weaknesses and the need for support across the
four dimensions--intellectual functioning and adaptive skills;
psychological/emotional considerations; physical/health/etiological
considerations; and environmental considerations; (3) identify the kind and
intensities of supports needed for each of the four dimensions.
HOW MANY CHILDREN HAVE MENTAL RETARDATION?
According to the
U.S. Department of Education (Fifteenth Annual Report to Congress on the
Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1993, p. A
60) during the school year 1991-92, 554,247 children aged 6-21 were classified
as having mental retardation and receiving educational services under IDEA, Part
B, and Chapter 1 of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA), State
Operated Programs. Individual state reports for the 1991-92 school year
indicated variations in the number of these students from a total of 436
(Alaska) and 625 (Wyoming) to to 32,660 (Pennsylvania) and 41,933 (Ohio).
WHAT ARE SOME TYPICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDREN WITH MENTAL RETARDATION?
Among individuals with mental retardation, there
is a wide range of abilities, disabilities, strengths, and needs for support. It
is common to find language delay and motor development significantly below norms
of peers who do not have mental retardation. More seriously affected children
will experience delays in such areas of motor-skill development as mobility,
body image, and control of body actions. Compared to their nondisabled peers,
children with mental retardation may generally be below norms in height and
weight, may experience more speech problems, and may have a higher incidence of
vision and hearing impairment.
In contrast to their classmates, students with mental retardation often have
problems with attention, perception, memory, problem-solving, and logical
thought. They are slower in learning how to learn and find it harder to apply
what they have learned to new situations or problems. Some professionals explain
these patterns by asserting that children with mental retardation have
qualitatively different deficits in cognition or memory. Others believe that
persons with mental retardation move through the same stages of development as
those without retardation, although at a slower rate, reaching lower levels of
Many persons with retardation are affected only minimally, and will function
only somewhat slower than average in learning new skills and information.
WHAT ARE SOME EDUCATIONAL IMPLICATIONS?
children with mental retardation and persons
with more extensive limitations in their adaptive skills, teachers may find
that hands-on materials are more meaningful than pictures and demonstrations
more instructive than verbal directions. Teachers should build on students'
existing skills by teaching easier tasks before more complex tasks; breaking
longer, new tasks into small steps; and prompting or shaping accurate
performance. Teachers should help students develop rules and provide
opportunities for them to apply or transfer what they have learned. They can
help students generalize by using multiple examples and settings.
It will help students with mental retardation if shorter and distributed (not
massed) learning sessions are provided in the instructional process, especially
school, living, community, and work environments. From an early age, life skills
including daily living, personal/social skills, and occupational awareness and
exploration should be taught. Instruction in leisure and recreational
opportunities and skills also should be a part of the educational program along
with vocational preparation and training for adult living. As much as possible,
children and youth with mental retardation should be educated inclusively: in
schools, classrooms, and activities with their nondisabled peers.
American Association on Mental
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of supports (9th ed.). Annapolis, MD: Author.
Beirne-Smith, P., Patton, J. R., & Ittenbach, R. (1994). Mental
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Bricker, D., & Filler, J. (Eds.). (1985). Severe mental retardation: From
theory to practice. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.
Dattilo, J., & Schleien, S. J. (1994). Understanding leisure services for
individuals with mental retardation. Mental Retardation, 32(1), 53-59.
Drew, C. J., Logan, D. L., & Hardman, M. L. (1992). Mental retardation: A
life cycle approach. Riverside, NJ: Macmillan.
Dunbar, R. E. (1991). Mental retardation. Chicago, IL: Franklin Watts.
Dybwad, R. F. (1989). International directory of mental retardation resources
(3rd ed.). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Stock #
017-090-00080-1. Single copy free from President's Committee on Mental
Retardation, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 330 Independence
Ave., SW, Washington, DC 20201.
Matson, J. L., & Mulick, J. A. (1991). Handbook of mental retardation
(2nd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Sargent, L. (Ed.) (1991). Social skills in the school and community. Reston,
VA: The Council for Exceptional Children, Division on Mental Retardation and
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