Children With Mental Retardation: A Parent’s Guide

Babloo N.K, 13, has a helpful nature and sunny disposition. He goes to school, studies and plays just like his other classmates. Although he looks no different, Babloo is unlike others his age. He cannot add numbers, remember his home address or dress and feed himself. He is one of the 7.5 million Indian children with mental retardation.

What Is Mental Retardation?

Children with mental retardation

Children with mental retardation benefit from a warm and loving home atmosphere

We all have different mental abilities, ranging from average to above – and also less than average. Mental retardation/Intellectual Disability (MR/ID) are terms used when a child has certain limitations in mental ability, as well as difficulties with certain functions and activities of daily living. These include the ability to communicate; take care of oneself, participate in social, school, and work activities; and have awareness of personal health and safety. Mental retardation can manifest at a mild, moderate, severe or profound level.

Children with such a limitation were at one time called ‘retarded’ or ‘slow’, but with society becoming increasingly sensitive towards disabilities, better ways to address these special children have evolved. Examples – ‘intellectually impaired’ or ‘mentally handicapped.’

Children with mental retardation are not ‘sick’ – they are usually healthy, endearing little ones who just take longer to do things. But for a parent to be delivered the news that their child has a mental disability can be shocking, painful and extremely difficult to deal with. Also, India being a country of often archaic traditions and superstitions, many parents fall prey to biases based on misinformation – these cause even more trouble in dealing with their child.

To clear some common misunderstandings parents often believe about mental retardation:

• Medication or surgery will help my child

There is no medicine that can treat mental retardation. Brain tonics sold in the name of treatment only create false hopes for parents. Brain surgery cannot ‘cure’ mental retardation, either.

• Mental retardation is a hereditary problem, but no one in my family has any mental problems…

Mental retardation may sometimes have hereditary roots and be passed on from parents to children. However, environmental factors and also certain conditions during development of the foetus are much stronger reasons for a child being born with mental retardation.

• My mentally challenged child may turn dangerous or violent

The majority of the mentally disabled are not dangerous or violent. This myth is reinforced by media portrayals of people with mental illness as frequently violent.

• Mentally retarded people get cured after marriage

A person with intellectual disability may function better after marriage due to the support and care of the spouse, but marriage is not a cure for retardation.

To deal with any disability, getting the right information and right help (rather than following superstitious beliefs) is the family’s best bet for providing their child with a healthy life.

Here’s some more useful information on mental retardation:

How Mental Retardation Is Identified

Mental retardation is diagnosed with tests that assess the child in several areas, including intellectual, social and adaptive abilities. However, parents can assess whether their child has mental retardation, too. Some early warning signs:

• Milestones are delayed (crawls, walks, speaks much later than others of the same age)
• Slow reactions
• Difficulty in eating
• Child appears lost in his own world
• Behaves younger than peers
• Unable to learn fast
• Difficultly in following basic instructions
• Inability to make simple decisions

About 85% of children with mental retardation have only a mild level of impairment, so the intellectual limitation of such children may not be very obvious. In fact, until the age of around 5 years, a large number of children with mental retardation develop almost normal social and communication skills. Therefore – and very unfortunately – a lot of such children may not even be diagnosed as having mental retardation until they are admitted to school.

Experts in the field of rehabilitation strongly opine that early diagnosis and early intervention are the keys to preventing further loss of abilities and helping the mentally handicapped child to attain missing skills. In early intervention, a child who is at risk for developing mental retardation is given stimulation and therapy when he is only a few months of age. For example, the child will be taught to walk, talk and develop social skills.

Thanks to early intervention several intellectually impaired children have been able to attain their maximum potential, join mainstream schools and live far more fulfilled lives.

The Medical, Educational And Emotional Needs Of A Child With Mental Retardation

All children with mental retardation are best helped by a team of interdisciplinary specialists including a paediatrician, psychologist, special educator, speech therapist and physiotherapist. Most rehabilitation institutes such as NIMH (National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped) have such a team that can work with your child.

Nevertheless, parents need to remember that a child with mental retardation benefits most with a warm and loving home atmosphere, where the disability is not viewed as a burden. In my own experience of working with mentally challenged children, I have seen such children blossom under the care of families that accept and lovingly teach the child. Babloo, for example, is preparing to join higher secondary school under the devoted tutelage of his father.

What You Can Do To Help Your Child With Intellectual Disability

• Have open and ongoing communication with your child’s teachers and therapists, so that you can carry over tasks and activities in the home setting. For example, if the teacher is having a lesson on addition, take your child to the supermarket with you and help him count out the money to pay for your groceries.

• Assist your child in developing as many functional skills as possible – such as dressing, feeding, using the bathroom and grooming. These are far more useful to a child with a mental handicap than learning geometry and physics.

• Encourage independence in your child. Give her chores, keeping age, attention span and abilities in mind. Break jobs down into small steps.

• Give your child frequent feedback. Praise him when he does well. Build his abilities along with their confidence.

• Finally, don’t be ashamed of your child; instead her participate in social and recreational activities in your community.

All children are God’s creations. It is we who decide who among them are normal and who are abnormal. As a parent, you too can choose to guide your mentally challenged child on the road to normality – with a simple change in your perception and attitude.

Copyright © H’vovi Bhagwagar

H’vovi Bhagwagar is a Clinical Psychologist and trained MBTI® Practitioner. Along with her private practice, she conducts training programmes on life skills and writes for various publications. She hopes to bring a smile to as many faces as possible.

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