Mild Mental Retardation: Can Parents Detect It Early?

Medically reviewed by Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jul 14, 2022

    Mild Mental Retardation: Can Parents Detect It Early?

    A child with an intellectual disability experiences problems in two aspects: intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. Intellectual functioning pertains to cognitive skills, such as communication, learning, and problem-solving. On the other hand, adaptive behavior points to skills they need to go about their daily routine (hygiene, social skills, etc.) Experts classify intellectual disabilities into mild, moderate, severe, and profound. In this article, we’ll focus on mild intellectual disability, formerly called mild mental retardation.

    Why Mild Mental Retardation Is No Longer The Proper Term

    Before discussing the implications of mild intellectual disability, let’s first highlight why mild mental retardation is no longer a proper term.

    You see, although mild mental retardation was a correct medical term, we rarely use it now. Reports say the public has associated the terms “retard,” and “retarded” with other derogatory words, like “stupid” and “idiot.” Not only are these words offensive, but they also cause misunderstandings on the nature of the condition.

    So, in this discussion, we’ll use the term mild intellectual disability and not mild mental retardation.

    Mild Intellectual Disability, an Overview

    Children and people with mild intellectual disabilities may be slow in all areas of social and daily living skills as well as conceptual development. However, they can conform socially and be integrated into the general public.

    People with mild ID often have an intelligence quotient of 50 to 70 and can acquire reading and math skills up to the 3rd to 6th grade. Additionally, they can learn practical and vocational skills for self-maintenance.

    Overall, people with mild intellectual disabilities can acquire skills to live a life with minimal support.

    mild mental retardation

    Detecting Mild Mental Disabilities in Children

    According to experts, the more severe the degree of ID is, the sooner the signs and symptoms will appear. In the case of mild IDs, reports say signs and symptoms do not usually become apparent until the child reaches preschool (3 to 5 years old).

    Some of the things that parents immediately notice include:

    • Delay in language development, which means that the child is slower in using words or putting them together in a sentence. They might also have difficulty in saying complete sentences.
    • Slower social development, often as a result of language delay.
    • Difficulties in performing simple tasks, such as feeding or dressing themselves.
    • Frequent or more pronounced behavioral problems, like outbursts, temper tantrums, self-injurious behavior, and getting physically aggressive.

    Initially, the parents might not associate these problems with a cognitive concern. However, it will become more evident at preschool that the child cannot keep up with age-appropriate tasks most of their peers can already perform.

    Interventions for Mild Intellectual Disability

    The treatment for mild intellectual disabilities is often multi-disciplinary and depends on the aspects where the child experiences difficulties.

    On top of a pediatrician and neurologist, the child may also need the help of a speech therapist to promote language development or an occupational therapist for the acquisition of skills for activities of daily living.

    When to Bring Your Child to the Doctor

    You don’t have to wait until your child is in preschool to check for the signs of mild ID. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you need to bring your child to the doctor if they do not:

    • Respond or turn to a voice by their 6th month
    • Babble by the 9th month
    • Orient to their name by the 13th month
    • Point to request or comment, or follow a simple command without gesture by 18th month
    • Have 20 to 25 words in their vocabulary by age 2
    • Speak in 2-word phrases by 26 months
    • Speak in 3-word sentences by age 3 or has unintelligible speech

    Note that these indicators do not immediately point to an intellectual disability but may be due to another developmental delay. Still, the sooner you bring them to the doctor, the quicker they will receive appropriate intervention.

    Key Takeaways

    Mild intellectual disability now replaces the term mild mental retardation as the latter causes misunderstanding regarding the nature of the condition. The signs and symptoms of mild ID may not be noticeable until the child is in preschool. With intervention, people with mild ID can live a normal life with minimal support.

    Learn more about Toddler and Preschool Children here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jul 14, 2022


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