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 educational performance.

[Federal 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 impairment.


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:

Dimension I: Intellectual functioning and adaptive skills

Dimension II: Psychological/emotional considerations

Dimension III: Physical/health/etiological considerations

Dimension IV: Environmental considerations

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.


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).


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 functioning overall.

Many persons with retardation are affected only minimally, and will function only somewhat slower than average in learning new skills and information.


For younger 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 Retardation. (1992). Mental retardation: Definition, classification and systems of supports (9th ed.). Annapolis, MD: Author.

Beirne-Smith, P., Patton, J. R., & Ittenbach, R. (1994). Mental retardation (4th ed.). Riverside, NJ: Macmillan.

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 Developmental Disabilities.

Schalock, R. L., Stark, J. A., Snell, M. E., Coulter, D. L., Polloway, E. A., Luckasson, R., Reiss, S., & Spitalnik, D. M. (1994). The changing conception of mental retardation: Implications for the field. Mental Retardation, 32, 181-193.


American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR)

444 North Capitol St., NW, Suite 846

Washington, DC 20001

(202) 387-1968; toll free: (800) 424-3688 fax: (202) 387-2193


The Arc

500 E. Border St., Suite 300

Arlington, TX 76010

(817) 261-6003; TTY: (817) 277-0553; fax: (817) 277-3941


The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps (TASH)

11201 Greenwood Ave. N.

Seattle, WA 98133

(206) 361-8870


Division on Mental Retardation & Developmental


The Council for Exceptional Children

1920 Association Drive

Reston, VA 22091-1589

(703) 620-3660


National Down Syndrome Congress

1605 Chantilly Dr., Suite 250

Atlanta, GA 30324

(800) 232-NDSC


National Down Syndrome Society

666 Broadway

New York, NY 10012

(212) 460-9330; toll free: (800) 221-4602


President's Committee on Mental Retardation (PCMR)

U. S. Department of Health & Human Services

330 Independence Ave., SW

Washington, DC 20201

(202) 619-0634


People First International (self-advocacy group)

1340 Chemeketa St., NE

Salem, OR 97301

(503) 588-5288


Special Olympics International, Inc.

1350 New York Ave., NW,

Suite 500

Washington, DC 20005

(202) 628-3630


American Journal on Mental Retardation

Mental Retardation

American Association on Mental Retardation

444 No. Capitol St., NW

Suite 846

Washington, DC 20001


Education and Training in Mental Retardation and

Developmental Disabilities

Division on Mental Retardation & Developmental


The Council for Exceptional Children

1920 Association Drive

Reston, VA 22091-1589


Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe


Division on Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities

The Council for Exceptional Children

1920 Association Drive

Reston, VA 22091

NOTE. This digest supersedes ERIC Digest E423.

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