What Is the Difference Between Developmental Delay and Mental Retardation?

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  • Written By: Jennifer Long
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2014
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Although developmental delay and mental retardation are commonly confused, there is a difference between them. Mental retardation is an impairment of a person's intelligence and adaptive behaviors. A developmental delay is a delay in functioning for a person's age. Both conditions involve social maturity, physical and emotional development, and cognitive abilities. They also differ in how they are diagnosed and how they are treated.

Developmental delay and mental retardation are often considered to mean the same thing, but they are different. Mental retardation is actually a type of developmental delay. Developmental delays occur commonly in young children who have not met developing milestones for their ages. Mental retardation involves limited intelligence and delays in adaptive behavior. Adaptive behavior is how a person addresses life challenges using preexisting skills and knowledge.

There are a few particular ways developmental delay and mental retardation are distinguished. The most important distinguishing factor is diagnosis by a physician, which leads to a referral to a specialist. Doctors and specialists must take extra care with diagnosing mental retardation and developmental delays in children.

The parent is usually the first person to notice a delay in development. In some cases, recognizing delay occurs while the child is getting a checkup. When a doctor suspects there is a delay present, a few more visits are scheduled to be sure it is not just temporary, and the child is referred to a developmental specialist.

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A development specialist can assist with treating a developmental delay. The specialist can identify which areas are delayed and create a treatment plan that involves learning activities for each area of delay. For example, a child who has a lag in fine motor skills would be on an activity plan that involves specific activities to encourage hand and finger coordination, such as drawing and painting or finding objects hidden in silly putty.

Diagnosing mental retardation, on the other hand, is a longer and more involved process. Social and learning problems are often caught by teachers who recommend for the child to see a specialist, and this is where intelligence levels and adaptive skills are tested. Mental retardation can be severe enough to be considered a disability, mainly because it can interfere with a person's ability to engage in simple daily tasks. Doctors must evaluate the child and determine where his or her intellectual level falls. From that point, they must determine which adaptive skills are delayed or missing. The causes of mental retardation may also play a role in diagnosis.

When a diagnosis has been made, the goal switches to creating a plan to help improve the child's daily functioning. A comprehensive support plan is created by the primary care physician and specialist. Human development and education activities help with physical development, and learning through specially designed activities, such as problem-solving exercises, helps with cognitive development. Part of the support plan will also contain activities that teach how to function on a daily basis, such as practicing hygiene, cooking, and cleaning. As the patient gets older, the plan will grow to include community and employment activities to prepare the person for life as an adult in the world.

Developmental delay and mental retardation do not mean that a child is supposed to spend a lifetime not being able to care for himself or live in the world as an adult. Seeking treatment as early as possible can help ensure that these problems do not affect a child permanently. With the right care, a child with a developmental delay can catch up with the rest of the age group, and a person with mental retardation can learn how to survive. The main key is getting the correct diagnosis so that the appropriate treatment can be applied.

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