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13 Mental Retardation


Inability to generalise from specific events and
The normal development of a child can be divided to specify from general events.
into four major areas (these are modified after the
Denver Development Screening Test, DDST). Abstract or Conceptual Thinking Stage
Motor behaviour. This stage begins at 7 years of age and lasts till 11
Adaptive behaviour. years of age, although it may be said to continue
Language, and throughout life. This is characterised by:
Personal and social behaviour. Ability to focus on several dimensions of a
As normal children cross these milestones or problem at one time, mentally.
Developmental levels at nearly expected age limits
(within a few months’ range) it is best to describe these
developmental changes as milestones.
In addition to these milestones, there are other
developmental parameters such as height, weight,
activity level and general health which have an
important bearing on the development of a child.

Intellectual development goes hand-in-hand with the

development of physical and behavioural character-
istics. According to Jean Piaget, it can be divided into
the following stages.

Sensori-Motor Stage
This stage extends from birth to 2 years of age, and
is characterised by:
Actions related to sucking, orality and assimila-
tion of objects.
Ability to think of only one thought at a time.
Inanimate objects are given human qualities.
‘Out of sight’ means ceasing to exist.

Concrete Thinking Stage

This stage lasts from 2 years to 7 years of life, and
is characterised by:
Egocentric thought with a unique logic of its
own, involving a limited point of view and
lacking introspection.
154 A Short Textbook of Psychiatry

Table 13.1: Normal Developmental Milestones

Age Developmental Milestones Age Developmental Milestones
1. Motor Behaviour 1½ years Makes a tower of 3-4 cubes; Scribbles
< 4 weeks Moves head laterally in prone position spontaneously, imitating writing;
4 weeks Momentarily lifts head when prone Some-times may draw a vertical line
3 months Head-holding; Lifts head to 90° when 2 years Turns one page of a book at one time;
prone Makes a tower of 6-7 cubes;
5 months Sits with support; Rolls over Draws (copies) a horizontal line
6 months Lifts head and upper chest with support 3 years Makes a tower of 9-10 cubes; Makes a
of extended arms 3-cube bridge; Draws (copies) a circle.
8 months Sits steadily with straight back; Crawls; 4 years Draws (copies) a cross.
Early stepping movements when feet 5 years Draws (copies) a square; Draws (copies)
are placed on ground, with support a recognisable man
10 months Pulls from supine to sitting and sitting 6 years Draws (copies) a triangle
to standing; Stands holding furniture; 7 years Draws (copies) a diamond (Fig. 13.1)
Cruises around; Stands without support 8 years Draws (copies) the following figures
momentarily; Creeps on ground without (Figs 13.2 and 13.3)
support of abdomen 9 years Draws (copies) the following figure
14-15 months Walks well without support; Walks (Fig. 13.4)
backwards and sideways 3. Language
2 years Runs well; Climbs stairs alone; Kicks a 4 weeks Turns head and responds to sound of a
large ball; Throws a ball overhead bell; Vocalises (apart from crying)
2½ years Walks on tip-toes 3 months Laughs aloud
3 years Climbs stairs in a coordinated manner,
with alternate feet going up the staircase;
Rides a tricycle; Makes a broad jump;
Jumps in place
4 years Stands on one foot for 5 seconds
5 years Heel-to-toe walk; Jumps on one foot
Adaptive Behaviour (includes fine motor
weeks Momentarily regards close moving
ob-jects, close to mid-line
Fig. 13.1 Fig. 13.2
3 months Follows the moving objects, even away
from mid-line; converges and focuses
4-5 months Grasps objects crudely; Reaches to grasp
6 months Transfer objects from one hand to other
9-10 months Claps hands and matches two hand-held
objects in mid line; Thumb-finger grasp
1 year Gives hand-held objects to mother, when
asked; Turns 2-3 pages of a book at one
time Fig. 13.3 Fig. 13.4

Mental Retardation

9 months Speaks mama, dada, m-m-m, ah (and 3 months Recognises mother
other vowel sounds); Responds to name 6 months Takes foot to mouth; Smiles back at
10 months Understands spoken speech to some mirror-image of self
extent, e.g. where is ‘mama’? 9 months Responds to social play; Resists pulling
1-1¼ years Uses 3-5 words meaningfully away of toy and tries to reach for it;
18 months About 10 words spoken including name Holds milk-bottle and eats a biscuit all
2 years Combines 2 different words; Names by oneself
at least one object in picture; Points to 1½ years Feeds oneself with a spoon, with little
at least one named body part; Simple spilling; Mimics actions of others; Pulls
sentences made a toy with a string; Toilet training started
3 years Uses plurals; Has a fairly good vocabu- 2 years Wears simple garments, socks and shoes
lary 3 years Unbuttons buttons; Buckles shoes; Can
5 years Colour naming accurately (primary dress and undress, with help
colours); Defines words 4 years Buttons the dress well; Washes own face;
4. Personal and Social Behaviour Plays with other children easily; Sepa-
4 weeks Regards face intently rates from mother with little difficulty.
2-3 months Social smile 5 years Dresses without supervision.

The thought process is flexible and reversible. the word learning disability is used instead to avoid
Ability of abstraction, i.e. ability to generalise the pejorative connotations associated with the word
from specific and ability to find similarities mental retardation. However, in this book, the term
and differences among specific objects. mental retardation is retained as it is the preferred
term in both ICD-10 and DSM-IV-TR.
Adolescent Thinking or Mental retardation is defined as significantly sub-
Formal Operational Stage average general intellectual functioning, as-sociated
This stage begins at 11 years of age and continues with significant deficit or impairment in adaptive
life-long. This is characterised by: functioning, which manifests dur-ing the
Ability to imagine the possibilities inherent in a developmental period (before 18 years of age).
situation, thus making the thought comprehen- General intellectual functioning is usually as-
sive. sessed on a standardised intelligence test with sig-
Ability to develop complete abstract nificantly sub-average intelligence as two standard
hypotheses and to test them. deviations below the mean (usually an IQ of below 70),
By the end of adolescence, the individual’s whilst adaptive behaviour is the person’s ability to meet
intellectual ability is nearly completely developed, responsibilities of social, personal, occupational and
although learning and intellectual growth go-on interpersonal areas of life, appropriate to age,
throughout the lifespan of individual. sociocultural and educational background. Adaptive
behaviour is measured by clinical interview and
MENTAL RETARDATION standardised assessment scales.
Very often, it is assumed that the persons with
One to three percent of the general population has mental retardation constitute a homogenous group.
mental retardation. In some countries (such as UK), This is however not true. Persons with mental
156 A Short Textbook of Psychiatry

retardation vary in their behavioural, psychological, Table 13.2: Classification of Mental Retardation by IQ
physical and social characteristics as much as the so-
called ‘normal’ general population does. Mental Retardation Level IQ Range
Another common error is taking the IQ score as 1. Mild 50-70*
the measure of someone’s intelligence. It should be 2. Moderate 35-50*
re-membered that a person with mental retardation 3. Severe 20-35*
must have a deficit in both general intellectual 4. Profound <20*
functioning and adaptive behaviour. (*As intelligence tests employed to measure IQ generally
A classification of mental retardation on the basis have an error of measurement of about 5 points, each
of IQ (Intelligence Quotient, which is equal to mental figure means ± 5 points, e.g. IQ of 50 means an IQ of 50 ±
5, depending on the adaptive behaviour).
age, i.e. MA, divided by chronological age, i.e. CA,
multiplied by 100; i.e. IQ = MA/CA × 100), is pro-
vided in Table 13.2. Severe Mental Retardation
Severe mental retardation is often recognised early in
Mild Mental Retardation life with poor motor development (significantly
This is the commonest type of mental retardation, delayed developmental milestones) and absent or
accounting for 85-90% of all cases. The diagnosis is markedly delayed speech and other communication
made usually later than in other types of mental skills.
retardation. Later in life, elementary training in personal
In the preschool period (before 5 years of age), these health care can be given and they can be taught to
children often develop like other normal children, with talk. At best, they can perform simple tasks under
very little deficit. Later, they often progress up to the 6th close super-vision. In the earlier educational
class (grade) in school and can achieve voca-tional and classification, they were called as ‘dependent’.
social self-sufficiency with a little support. Only under
stressful conditions or in the presence of an associated Profound Mental Retardation
disease, supervised care may be needed. This group accounts for about 1-2% of all persons
This group has been referred to as ‘educable’ in with mental retardation. The associated physical
a previous educational classification of mental disorders, which often contribute to mental
retarda-tion. retardation, are com-mon in this subtype.
The achievement of developmental milestones is
Moderate Mental Retardation markedly delayed. They often need nursing care or
About 10% of all persons with mental retardation have ‘life support’ under a carefully planned and
an IQ between 35 and 50. In the educational classi- structured environment (such as group homes or
fication, this group was earlier called as ‘trainable’, residential placements).
although many of these persons can also be educated.
In the early years, despite a poor social awareness, Aetiology
these children can learn to speak. Often, they drop out Mental retardation is a condition which is caused not
of school after the 2nd class (grade). They can be only by biological factors but also by psychosocial
trained to support themselves by performing semi- factors. In more than one third of cases, no cause can be
skilled or unskilled work under supervision. A mild found despite an extensive search.
stress may destabilise them from their adaptation; thus Some of the common causes of mental retarda-
they work best in supervised occupational settings. tion are listed in Table 13.3. There appears to be a
Mental Retardation

Table 13.3: Some Causes of Mental Retardation

Genetic (probably in 5% of cases) Birth trauma
Chromosomal abnormalities (such as Down’s Hypoxia
syndrome, Fragile-X syndrome, Turner’s syn- Intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR)
drome, Klinefelter’s syndrome) Kernicterus
Inborn errors of metabolism, involving amino- Placental abnormalities
acids (phenylketonuria, homo-cystinuria, Drugs during first trimester.
Hartnup’s disease), lipids (Tay-Sachs disease, Acquired physical disorders in childhood
Gaucher’s disease, Niemann-Pick disease), (prob-ably in 2-5% of cases)
carbohydrates (galactosaemia, glycogen storage Infections, especially encephalopathies
diseases), purines (Lesch-Nyhan syndrome), and Cretinism
mucopolysaccharides (Hurler’s disease, Hunter’s Trauma
disease, Sanfillipo’s disease). Lead poisoning
Single-gene disorders (such as tuberous sclero- Cerebral palsy.
sis, neurofibromatosis, dystrophia myotonica) Sociocultural causes (probably in 15% of cases)
Cranial anomalies (such as microcephaly) Deprivation of sociocultural stimulation.
Perinatal causes (probably in 10% of cases) Psychiatric disorders (probably in 1-2% of cases)
Infections (such as rubella, syphilis, toxoplas- Pervasive developmental disorders (such as
mosis, cytomegalo-inclusion body disease) Infantile autism)
Prematurity Childhood onset schizophrenia.

preponderance of males among people with mental However, the physical appearance may be
retardation. Some important causes of mental retar- normal and diagnosis made only after investigations,
dation are discussed below. which include:

Phenylketonuria Ferric chloride test: Addition of FeCl3 to urine

gives a green colour in patients with
An inborn error of metabolism, it accounts for about phenylketon-uria. This results from the presence
0.5-1% of all cases of mental retardation. It is an of phenylpy-ruvic acid in urine. This test may be
autosomal recessive (AR) disorder, most prevalent in positive in other aminoacidurias as well.
North Europe. The basic defect is absence or Guthrie’s test: This involves a bacteriological
inactivity of phenylalanine hydroxylase, a hepatic pro-cedure for measurement of phenylalanine
enzyme, responsible for catalysis of phenylalanine to levels in blood.
paratyrosine conversion (Fig. 13.5). It results in Chromatography: An early diagnosis is clearly of
marked increase in blood phenylalanine levels and its paramount importance, since mental retardation of
metabolites. There is also a decrease in 5-HT, epine- phenylketonuria is preventable, if diagnosis is made
phrine and norepinephrine levels in brain. early in life. The treatment consists of a low
The majority of patients with phenylketonuria phenylalanine diet, best started before the age of 6
have severe mental retardation. The associated months and usually continued up to 5-6 years of
features may include short stature, fair complexion age. The diet should not be completely devoid of
with coarse features, widely spaced upper incisors, phenylalanine, as it is an essential amino-acid and
eczematous dermatitis, epilepsy, hyperactivity, poor its absence may itself be hazardous.
communication skills and poor motor coordination. Other disorders which cause mental retardation
EEG may be abnormal in up to 80% of cases. and are preventable by dietary treatment, include:
158 A Short Textbook of Psychiatry

Fig. 13.5: Metabolic Pathways of Phenylalanine: Normal and Abnormal

Homocystinuria: The treatment is with methio- Translocation between chromosome 21 and 15.
nine-free diet. Thus, the total number of chromosomes is 46, in
Galactosaemia: The treatment is with lactose spite of 3 chromosomes at 21. The translocation
and galactose-free diet. is inherited, with asymptomatic carriers
Maple syrup urine disease (Menkes’ disease): containing only 45 chromosomes.
The treatment is with a diet low in leucine, iso- The most important risk factor is higher maternal
leucine and valine. age (>35 years), with a risk of 1:50 after the age of
Hyperprolinaemia: The treatment is with low The clinical features may include generalised
proline diet. hypotonia, hyperflexibility, round face, oblique
Leucine-sensitive hypoglycaemia: The treatment is palpebral fissures, a flat nasal bridge, short ears,
with low-protein, leucine-deficient diet. loose skin folds at the nape of neck, persistent
Fructose intolerance: Fructose, sucrose and epicanthic folds, single palmar crease, high arched
other sugars should be replaced in diet. palate, thick tongue, incurved little fingers and
Brushfield spots on irides.
Down’s syndrome Congenital heart disease (in about 35% of cases),
Down’s syndrome or mongolism occurs in 1 out of gastrointestinal anomalies (in about 10%), chronic
every 700 births. It accounts for about 10% of serous otitis media (in >50%), hypothyroidism and
children with moderate to severe mental retardation. Alzheimer’s disease (in 30’s and 40’s), epilepsy (in
There are three types of chromosomal about 10%), ocular disorders, reduced fertility and
aberrations in Down’s syndrome: reduced life span (often due to antecedent complica-
Trisomy-21 is the commonest where karyotype tions like infections) are common.
of mother is normal. The diagnosis is made by clinical assessment and
Mosaicism, with both normal and trisomic cells chromosomal studies. At present, there is no
present. effective pharmacological treatment available.
Mental Retardation

Tuberous Sclerosis voice, large tongue, subnormal temperature, pot belly,

This is an autosomal dominant disorder, also known as anaemia, hypotonia of muscles, hypertelorism and
epiloia. It occurs in about 1:15,000 persons in general mental retardation, which may be severe to profound.
population. The characteristic clinical features are
known as Vogt’s triad, which consist of: Cerebral Palsy
Mental retardation, ranging from mild to severe. This is a syndrome consisting of a conglomeration of
Convulsions. perinatal disorders of various aetiologies, presenting
Adenoma sebaceum, present on the face (usually with a common feature of paralysis of limbs. The
red) and also on the rest of the body (usually paralysis may be monoplegia, hemiplegia, paraplegia,
brownish white). The distribution on the face triplegia or quadriplegia. It is usually of upper motor
is usually of butterfly type. neuron type, presenting with spasticity.
Multiple glial nodules appear throughout the cer- The extrapyramidal symptoms may be present
ebral cortex and cerebellum. Tumours in the various and seizures may occur often. Mental retardation is
other parts of the body (e.g. rhabdomyoma of heart, present in about 70% of all cases, and ranges from
mixed tumours of kidney, retinal nerve tumours) mild to severe.
may occur. In addition, periosteal thickening,
pulmonary fibrosis, renal failure and cardiac failure Diagnosis
can be mani-fested. The diagnosis is made by the following steps:
There is no effective treatment at present except History.
symptomatic management of seizures and other sys- General physical examination.
temic manifestations. Detailed neurological examination.
Mental status examination, for the assessment of
Fragile-X Syndrome associated psychiatric disorders and the clinical
This is second commonest chromosomal aberration assessment of the level of intelligence.
causing mental retardation. Occurring in about 1 out Investigations.
of 1000 live births, it is diagnosed on chromosomal Routine investigations.
studies. The characteristic presence of a fragile site Urine test, e.g. for phenylketonuria, maple
at the tip of the long arm of X-chromosome appears syrup urine disease.
as a constriction. EEG, especially in presence of seizures.
Clinically, the person may have a short stature, Blood levels, for inborn errors of metabolism.
large head, large ‘bat’ ears, long face and big sized Chromosomal studies, e.g. in Down’s syndrome,
testes (in males after puberty). The associated psy- prenatal (by amniocentesis or chorionic villus
chiatric disorders, like attention deficit disorder, may biopsy) and postnatal.
be present. CT scan or MRI scan of brain, e.g. in tuberous
sclerosis, focal seizures, unexplained neurologi-
Cretinism cal syndromes, anomalies of skull configuration,
Goitrous cretinism is a common cause of mental severe or profound mental retardation without
retar-dation in India. It is endemic in iodine-deficient any apparent cause, toxoplasmosis.
areas such as the goitrous Himalayan belt. Early Thyroid function tests, particularly when cretin-
recognition and treatment is essential, as it is a ism is suspected.
preventable cause of mental retardation. Liver function tests, e.g. in mucopolysacc-
The clinical features include goitre, dwarfism, haridosis.
coarse skin, ossification delays, apathy, hoarseness of Psychological tests
160 A Short Textbook of Psychiatry

The commonly used tests for measurement of Primary Prevention

intelligence include: This consists of:
Seguin form board test. Improvement in socioeconomic condition of
Stanford-Binet, Binet-Simon or Binet-Kamath society at large, aiming at elimination of
tests. under-stimulation, malnutrition, prematurity
Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and perinatal factors.
(WISC) for 6½ to 16 years of age. Education of lay public, aiming at removal of the
Wechsler’s Preschool and Primary Scale of misconceptions about individuals with mental
Intelligence (WPPSI) for 4 to 6½ years of age. retardation.
Bhatia’s battery of performance tests. Medical measures for good perinatal medical
Raven’s progressive matrices (coloured, stand- care to prevent infections, trauma, excessive
ard and advanced). use of medications, malnutrition, obstetric
The tests used for the assessment of adaptive complications, and diseases of pregnancy.
behaviour include: Universal immunisation of children with BCG,
Vineland Social Maturity Scale (VSMS). polio, DPT, and MMR.
Denver Development Screening Test (DDST). Facilitating research activities to study the causes
Gessell’s Development Scale. of mental retardation and their treatment.
Genetic counselling in at-risk parents, e.g. in
Differential Diagnosis phenylketonuria, Down’s syndrome.
The diagnosis of mental retardation is usually
simple. However, while making this diagnosis, the Secondary Prevention
following conditions must be kept in mind, as they Early detection and treatment of preventable dis-
can be and are many times mistaken for mental orders, e.g. phenylketonuria (low
retardation, with disastrous results. phenylalanine diet), maple syrup urine disease
Deaf and dumb (This possibility must always be (low branched amino-acid diet) and others as
ruled out either by clinical examination and/or by discussed earlier; hypothyroidism (thyroxine).
audiometry). Early detection of handicaps in sensory, motor
Deprived children, with inadequate social stimula- or behavioural areas with early remedial
tion (Although this can also cause mental retarda- measures and treatment.
tion, many children become ‘normal’ intellectually Early treatment of correctable disorders, e.g.
on providing adequate stimulation). infections (antibiotics), skull configuration
Isolated speech defects. anomalies (surgical correction).
Psychiatric disorders (such as infantile autism, Early recognition of presence of mental retarda-
childhood onset schizophrenia). tion. A delay in diagnosis may cause
Systemic disorders (without mental retardation unfortunate delay in rehabilitation.
but with physical debilitation). As far as possible, individuals with mental
Epilepsy. retardation should be integrated with normal
individuals in society, and any kind of seg-
Management regation or discrimination should be actively
The management of mental retardation can be dis- avoided. They should be provided with facilities
cussed under prevention at primary, secondary and to enable them to reach their own full potential.
tertiary levels. However, there is a role of special schools for
those with more severe mental retardation.
Mental Retardation

Tertiary Prevention Legislation: In 1995, the ‘Persons with Dis-

Adequate treatment of psychological and be- ability Act’ came in to being in India. This act
havioural problems. envisages mandatory support for prevention,
Behaviour modification, using the principles of early detection, education, employment, and
positive and negative reinforcement. other facilities for the welfare of persons with
Rehabilitation in vocational, physical, and social disabilities in general, and mental retardation
areas, commensurate with the level of handicap. in particular. This Act provides for affirmative
Parental counselling is extremely important to action and non-discrimination of persons with
lessen the levels of stress, teaching them to disabilities.
adapt to the situation, enlisting them In 1999, the ‘National Trust Act’ came in to
(especially parents) as co-therapists, and force. This Act proposes to involve the parents
encouraging for-mation of parents’ or carers’
of mentally challenged persons and voluntary
organisation (s) and self-help groups.
Institutionalisation or residential care may be organisations in setting up and running a
needed for individuals with profound mental variety of services and facilities with
retardation. governmental funding.