Ideas that Work, office of special programs U.S. Department of Education

The contents of this website were developed in part under a grant from the US Department of Education, #H328M150052. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the US Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government or Project Officer, David Emenheiser.

Cognitive Disability Resources

Cognitive disability (mental retardation) is a term used when a person has certain limitations in mental functioning and in skills such as communicating, taking care of him or herself, and social skills. These limitations will cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than a typical child. Children with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) may take longer to learn to speak, walk, and take care of their personal needs such as dressing or eating. They are likely to have trouble learning in school. They will learn, but it will take them longer. There may be some things they cannot learn.

What Causes Cognitive Disability (Mental Retardation)?

Doctors have found many causes of cognitive disabilities (mental reatrdation). The most common are:

  • Genetic conditions. Sometimes a cognitive disability(mental retardation) is caused by abnormal genes inherited from parents, errors when genes combine, or other reasons. Examples of genetic conditions are Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and phenylketonuria (PKU).
  • Problems during pregnancy. Cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) can result when the baby does not develop inside the mother properly. For example, there may be a problem with the way the baby's cells divide as it grows. A woman who drinks alcohol or gets an infection like rubella during pregnancy may also have a baby with cognitive diabilities (mental retardation).
  • Problems at birth. If a baby has problems during labor and birth, such as not getting enough oxygen, he or she may have a cognitive dsiability (mental retardation).
  • Health problems. Diseases like whooping cough, the measles, or meningitis can cause cognitive disabilities (mental retardation). Cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) can also be caused by extreme malnutrition (not eating right), not getting enough medical care, or by being exposed to poisons like lead or mercury.

A cognitive disability (mental retardation) is not a disease. You can't catch a cognitive disability (mental retardation) from anyone. Cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) are also not a type of mental illness, like depression. There is no cure for cognitive disabilities (mental retardation). However, most children with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) can learn to do many things. It just takes them more time and effort than other children.

How is a Cognitive Disability (Mental Retardation) Diagnosed?

Cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) are diagnosed by looking at two main things. These are:

  • the ability of a person's brain to learn, think, solve problems, and make sense of the world (called IQ or intellectual functioning); and
  • whether the person has the skills he or she needs to live independently (called adaptive behavior, or adaptive functioning).

Intellectual functioning, or IQ, is usually measured by a test called an IQ test. The average score is 100. People scoring below 70 to 75 are thought to have a cognitive disability. To measure adaptive behavior, professionals look at what a child can do in comparison to other children of his or her age. Certain skills are important to adaptive behavior. These are:

  • daily living skills, such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and feeding one's self;
  • communication skills, such as understanding what is said and being able to answer;
  • social skills with peers, family members, adults, and others.

To diagnose a cognitive disability (mental retardation), professionals look at the person's mental abilities (IQ) and his or her adaptive skills. Both of these are highlighted in the definition of cognitive disability (mental retardation) provided between the lines below. This definition comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that guides how schools provide early intervention and special education and related services to children with disabilities.

Providing services to help individuals with cognitive disabilities has led to a new understanding of how we define mental retardation. After the initial diagnosis of mental retardation is made, we look at a person's strengths and weaknesses. We also look at how much support or help the person needs to get along at home, in school, and in the community. This approach gives a realistic picture of each individual. It also recognizes that the "picture" can change. As the person grows and learns, his or her ability to get along in the world grows as well.

IDEA's Definition of "Cognitive Disability (Mental Retardation)"

Our nation's special education law, the IDEA, defines a cognitive disability (mental retardation) as "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." [34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(6)]

How Common is a Cognitive Disability?

As many as 3 out of every 100 people in the country have a cognitive disability (mental retardation) (The Arc, 2001). Nearly 613,000 children ages 6 to 21 have some level of a cognitive disability and need special education in school (Twenty-fourth Annual Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Education, 2002). In fact, 1 out of every 10 children who need special education has some form of cognitive disability (mental retardation).

What Are the Signs of Cognitive Disabilities (Mental Retardation)?

There are many signs of cognitive disabilities (mental retardation). For example, children with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) may:

  • sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children;
  • learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking,
  • find it hard to remember things,
  • not understand how to pay for things,
  • have trouble understanding social rules,
  • have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions,
  • have trouble solving problems, and/or
  • have trouble thinking logically.

About 87% of people with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) will only be a little slower than average in learning new information and skills. When they are children, their limitations may not be obvious. They may not even be diagnosed as having a cognitive disability (mental retardation) until they get to school. As they become adults, many people with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) can live independently. Other people may not even consider them as having a cognitive disability (mental retardation). The remaining 13% of people with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) score below 50 on IQ tests. These people will have more difficulty in school, at home, and in the community. A person with more severe retardation will need more intensive support his or her entire life. Every child with a cognitive disability (mental retardation) is able to learn, develop, and grow. With help, all children with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation) can live a satisfying life.

View text-based website