Treatment and care of mentally retarded people has changed greatly in modern times. Until the 1800s, families kept children with retardation at home, hidden from public view. Later, state governments built large institutions to house the retarded, and physicians advised parents to institutionalize retarded children. Few retarded children had the opportunity for education and training. Experts now recognize that mental retardation is not always a lifelong disorder. Some individuals diagnosed with mild mental retardation as children may gradually develop new skills through early intervention and educational services. As adults, they may function in everyday life at a level that no longer warrants a diagnosis of retardation.
All but the most profoundly retarded people usually can best develop their full potential by living in the community. Most people with mental retardation have the capacity to learn, advance intellectually, develop job and social skills, and become full participants in society. They may marry, have families, and be indistinguishable from other people. In order to achieve their potential, mentally retarded children need special education and training, which ideally begins in infancy and continues until they establish an adult role.