2004 Jordan Institute
9, No. 2
Information about People with Cognitive Limitations
Because child welfare
professionals see parents of varying levels of intellectual disability
and because they often do not know a parents specific diagnosis,
in this issue we use the broad term "cognitively limited" to
refer to parents who have intellectual limitations. To appreciate the
many different individuals who fall into this category, one must know
something about the way intelligence is measured and classified.
In the U.S. today intelligence
is commonly measured using a standardized IQ test, often the Weschler
test. On these tests the average IQ score is 100, with 66% of the population
scoring between 85 and 115 (Quinn, 2003), and 5.5% scoring below 75 (Welner,
2003). A person is considered to be mentally retarded if she has
an IQ below 7075, has significant limitations in her capacity to
handle everyday tasks, and this condition manifested itself before she
turned 18 (AAMR, 1992). Often individuals are identified as being at a
specific point on the continuum of mental retardation, which spans from
profound to mild.
Most people with retardation
(89%) have mild mental retardation. Persons with moderate mental retardation
account for only 7.5% of people with retardation, while those classified
as severely or profoundly retarded account for 3.5% (Field & Sanchez,
1999). Thus, when child welfare workers encounter parents with developmental
disabilities, chances are their cognitive limitations will be relatively
Classifications of Intelligence
It is important to note that
a person with limits in intellectual functioning/low IQ who does not have
limits in adaptive skill areas may not be diagnosed as having mental retardation
(Arc, 1999). There is also a segment of the population who have IQs above
75 but who have intellectual limitations such that they need education
and/or supports to succeed with complex tasks, such as child rearing (Tymchuk,
Lakin, & Luckasson, 2001).
Cognitive limitations can be caused by genetic conditions, problems during
pregnancy, problems at birth, problems after birth, and poverty (Arc,
1999). There are thousands of causes of cognitive limitations. Most are
not genetic (Ingram, 1990).
Fujiura and Yamaki (1997) estimate that 1% of Americans have some form
of mental retardation. If we accept this estimate and apply it to our
state, we would expect 82,000 North Carolinians (children and adults)
to be mentally retarded.
The actual number of people
with mental retardation in North Carolina is not known. We do know, however,
that in 2003 approximately 31,000 children and adults (or 0.38% of the
population) were identified by North Carolinas area mental health
programs as receiving or requesting services for developmental disabilities.
This figure does not reflect those who are cognitively limited but living
in the community without formal support services (Realon, 2003).
We do not know how many
people with cognitive limitations in the U.S. choose to have and raise
children. Most researchers agree, however, that their numbers are
steadily increasing and will probably continue to do so as a result of
changing attitudes towards sexuality, deinstitutionalization, decreased
segregation, and wider opportunities for independent living and participation
in the community (Booth & Booth, 1993).
Like everyone else, people with cognitive limitations possess a wide range
of strengths and resources. These may include resilience, a sense of humor,
musical and artistic talents, and jobs they love. Many have a strong network
of supportive friends and helping professionals. Their families of origin
are often a major source of strength for them (Llewellyn, et al., 1998).
Virtually all parents with cognitive limitations feel tremendous love
for their children and want them to grow up healthy and happy. They want
to be good parents.
Although their IQs will
not change, most people with cognitive limitations possess the ability
to learn. Individuals in this population often continue to develop skills
for managing day-to-day life throughout their lives (Edgerton, 2001).
Formal instruction, tailored to their needs, has proven effective in helping
people with cognitive limitations develop life skills, including parenting
skills (Field & Sanchez, 1999).
Depending on the extent of their disabilities, people with cognitive limitations
may be more likely than people in the general population to struggle with
the following challenges:
- Intellectual Tasks.
Even people with mild cognitive limitations may have limited skills
related to planning, decision-making, and coping. They may have difficulty
understanding and using information in the formats commonly used in
society. Many have problems understanding written and spoken language
(Tymchuk, Lakin, & Luckasson, 2001). Illiteracy, school failure,
dropout, and unemployment may result.
- History of Personal
Victimization. Studies have found that people with mental retardation
are much more likely than the general population to have been sexually
abused (Lumley et al., 1998) or abused or neglected as children (Tymchuk,
2001), to be the victims of domestic violence (Carlson, 1998), and to
be taken advantage of by strangers, friends, and relatives.
- Stigma and bias.
See the following article, Our Shameful Past.
- Poor Physical and Mental
Health. In a review of various studies, Tymchuk, Lakin, and Luckasson
(2001) found people with mild cognitive limitations to have an increased
risk for lack of health care, poor health outcomes due to disease and
violence, and mental illness (including stress, depression, loneliness,
anxiety, and substance abuse). The need for glasses or hearing aids
in mothers with mental retardation is more likely to go unidentified
or unmet (Keltner & Tymchuk, 1992).
- Fewer Social Supports.
Though their need for social support is greater, individuals with cognitive
limitations often lack the support they need to live stable, happy lives.
Reasons include: the effects of institutionalization, inability to negotiate
formal support systems, and relatives/friends worn out by the burden
of support or who are themselves cognitively limited.
- Poverty. Most people
with cognitive limitations, including those with the mildest forms of
retardation, are poor (Edgerton, 2001). This is not surprising, since
all the other challenges faced by this population interfere with their
ability to obtain an education, find and keep a job, and get ahead in
society. Often cognitive limitations and poverty combine to bring families
to the attention of DSS.
with Child Welfare
We do not know for certain what percentage of child welfare caseloads
involve parents with cognitive limitations. Child Welfare Institutes
Danielle Nabinger says, States dont know about or track this
population. Therefore we have no real sense of how much it affects child
welfare work. The impact may be huge (Nabinger, 2003).
Anecdotal reports suggest
these parents make up a significant number of child welfare-involved families.
Laura Quinn, with Wake County Human Services, estimates 20% of the parents
involved with child welfare in her county have a diagnosis of mental retardation,
and that another 5% to 10% are cognitively limited in some way (Quinn,
Parents in this population
are usually involved with child welfare due to neglect or dependency (Field
& Sanchez, 1999). Abuse, when it happens, usually occurs because parents
have not yet developed the coping skills they need. Once involved, parents
with cognitive limitations are more likely than other parents to lose
their children to the child welfare system (Keltner & Tymchuk, 1992).
Parents with cognitive limitations may represent a significant challenge
for child welfare workers because they often have many complex needs.
To serve these parents and their children effectively, social workers
should make a commitment to learning as much as possible about working
with this population. Some of what they will need to know, such as how
to identify these parents and respond to them in a family-centered way,
are addressed in this issue of Practice Notes.
for this and other articles in this issue