Once routinely institutionalized, most mentally challenged children are now encouraged to live with their families, participate with their peer groups and even strive for independence. This modern attitude shift is due to a better understanding of what defines mental retardation, and what does not.
Mentally challenged children are unable to fulfill their intellectual potential, and have mental capacities that lag behind those of their peers. Mental retardation has many different causes, degrees, variables and facets, and identifying it is more of a process of classification than a diagnosis of a disease. Mental retardation also has a wide spectrum. At one end, there are mildly retarded people with such a high learning capacity that they are often no longer identified as mentally challenged once they reach adulthood. At the other end, there are people so mentally disabled that they can only learn the most basic skills.
According to the University of Illinois Extension, there are three common classifications of people with mental retardation. Mildly retarded individuals have a mental age of 8 to 12. They are considered educable, meaning that they are capable of mastering some academic concepts. Moderately retarded individuals have a mental age of 5 to 8, and are considered "trainable," but not capable of learning academic subjects. Severely retarded people have a very limited capacity to learn. Many are institutionalized and require lifelong care.
Mentally challenged children are slow to learn, slow to process thought and have an impaired adaptive ability. They may also be slow in their physical development. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology states that, to be diagnosed as mentally challenged, a child has to have both a significantly low IQ and serious difficulties functioning in his day-to-day life. According to Mark Dombeck, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and director of MentalHelp.net, a child with an IQ of 75 or lower falls into the mentally challenged range.
Emotional and Behavioral Characteristics
Most mentally challenged children are aware that they are not as intellectually adept as their peers. This knowledge can lead to self-esteem issues, as well as emotional and behavioral problems. Younger children may be withdrawn or anxious, or they may exhibit angry or attention-seeking outbursts. Teenagers may exhibit signs of depression. These problems, if not treated, can impede a child's progress.
The University of Illinois Extension states that mentally challenged children often have accompanying physical problems, such as vision or hearing deficiencies, epilepsy or speech impairment. Although these problems are often associated with mental retardation, they are not indicators of mental retardation in and of themselves.
According to Dombeck, there are no personality traits common to all mentally challenged people. Characteristics like stubbornness and a low tolerance for frustration are often associated with mental retardation. However, many mentally challenged children are happy and passive. Like children with average mental abilities, intellectually disabled children have a broad range of personality types, and respond to challenges in their own unique ways.
People often believe that mentally challenged children lack the capacity to learn. However, most mentally challenged children can actually learn a great deal, and can even expect to live moderately independent lives in adulthood.