The evaluation of individuals with mental retardation presents a number of clinical challenges. Although psychiatric illnesses occur at increased rates in those with mental retardation (221, 222), it is not always possible to establish a definitive axis I diagnosis as a cause for behavioral symptoms (223). Depending on the extent of the patient's intellectual limitations, the diagnosis of mental retardation may have been unrecognized before the behavioral symptoms began.

In interviewing individuals with mental retardation, particular attention needs to be given to the phrasing of questions so that they will be understandable to the patient. The use of general psychiatric self-report scales or other structured interview formats may be problematic in this regard (221, 224). Behavioral observations or functional measures will often carry a greater weight in the assessment process, and patients with more severe mental retardation may be unable to report on their own mental experiences (225, 226). Thus, obtaining a comprehensive description of symptoms, signs, and aspects of history from family members, caretakers, and other professionals is often crucial. This is particularly true when persons with mental retardation present for evaluation in the context of a behavioral crisis, because otherwise minor events (e.g., changes in routine, upsetting interpersonal interactions) may be quite distressing and result in catastrophic reactions. Similar issues with evaluation may be observed in individuals with other developmental disabilities.

Evaluation for co-occurring general medical conditions is particularly important in adults with mental retardation, given higher rates of undetected medical illnesses (222, 227) as well as the tendency for atypical clinical presentations of medical illnesses (140, 227).


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