Tuesday, 6 February 2007


Mental retardation is an idea, a condition, a syndrome, a symptom, and a source of pain and bewilderment to many families. Its history dates back to the beginning of man's time on earth.

The idea of mental retardation can be found as far back in history as the therapeutic papyri of Thebes (Luxor), Egypt, around 1500 B.C. Although somewhat vague due to difficulties in translation, these documents clearly refer to disabilities of the mind and body due to brain damage (Sheerenberger, 1983).

Mental retardation is also a condition or syndrome defined by a collection of symptoms, traits, and/or characteristics. It has been defined and renamed many times throughout history. For example, feeblemindedness and mental deficiency were used as labels during the later part of the last century and in the early part of this century.

Consistent across all definitions are difficulties in learning, social skills, everyday functioning, and age of onset (during childhood). Mental retardation has also been used as a defining characteristic or symptom of other disorders such as Down syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome.

Finally, mental retardation is a challenge and potential source of stress to the family of an individual with this disorder. From identification through treatment or education, families struggle with questions about cause and prognosis, as well as guilt, a sense of loss, and disillusionment about the future.

Fred J. Biasini, Ph.D.
Lisa Grupe, M.A.
Lisa Huffman, Ph.D.
Norman W. Bray, Ph.D.

Department of Psychology
University of Alabama at Birmingham

To appear in S. Netherton, D. Holmes, & C. E. Walker, (Eds.), Comprehensive Textbook of Child and Adolescent Disorders. New York: Oxford University Press, in press.

Mailing address: Department of Psychology and Civitan International Research Center, SC 313, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294. Phone: (205) 934-9768, FAX: (205) 975-6330. Send Internet email to: bray@cis.uab.edu

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