Understanding Intellectual Disability in Children

Understanding What Intellectual Disability Is

What is Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual disability is characterized by the lack of skills or mental ability needed for everyday living. Individuals with intellectual disabilities are able to learn new skills but at a slower pace. The degrees of intellectual disability may vary from mild to profound.

People with intellectual disabilities often have limitations in the following areas:

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  • Intellectual Functioning - It refers to an individual's ability to make decisions, learn, reason, and solve problems. Intellectual functioning is also known as intelligence quotient (IQ). 
  • Adaptive Behavior - It refers to the skills that are necessary for daily function. Skills include effective communication, interaction, and taking care of oneself. 

A person's IQ level is usually measured using an IQ test. The average IQ is 100 and most people have a score between 85-115. Individuals who have an IQ of less than 70-75 are considered intellectually disabled. 

Children's adaptive behavior can be measured by a specialist. Their skills are also compared to other children in the same age bracket. Other things that are observed may include:

  • Self-help skills (self-feeding and independent dressing or grooming)
  • Communication skills and how well they understand other people
  • Interaction with other children of the same age, including family members and friends

Around 1 percent of the population has an intellectual disability, in which 85 percent of it has a mild form of intellectual disability. However, with the right kind of support, most of them are able to independently live as adults. 

Signs of Intellectual Disability

There can be different signs of intellectual disability. Some of the signs may start to appear during early childhood or later when children reach school age. The signs also tend to depend on the type and severity of a child's disability. Below are the common signs seen in people with intellectual disabilities:

  • A delay in rolling over, sitting up, or crawling
  • Walking late
  • Speech problems or talking late
  • Poor self-help skills (dressing, grooming, feeding, and potty training)
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Unable to connect actions and their corresponding consequences
  • Explosive temper tantrums
  • Poor problem-solving skills or logical thinking

Those who have severe intellectual disabilities may also have other health problems, such as mood disorders, seizures, hearing problems, vision problems, and motor skills impairment. 


Intellectual disability is often a result of an interference with the normal development of the brain. The following are the most common causes of intellectual disability:

  • Genetic Disorders - They include Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome.
  • Pregnancy Problems - Alcohol or drug use/abuse, infections, preeclampsia, and malnutrition during pregnancy can all interfere with the normal brain development of the fetus. 
  • Childbirth Problems - Include premature delivery or when the baby is oxygen-deprived during childbirth. 
  • Illness or Injury - Intellectual disability can also be due to certain infections, such as measles, meningitis, or whooping cough. Other causes may include a severe head injury, severe malnutrition, brain infections, severe neglect/abuse, near-drowning, or exposure to toxic elements like lead. 
  • Unknown - The cause of intellectual disabilities in approximately two-thirds of all children is unknown.


A variety of tests can be done to confirm a diagnosis. They include:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Imaging tests
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)

Doctors may also use other tests to rule out other problems, which include neurological disorders and hearing problems. Diagnosing intellectual disabilities also include interviewing the child's parents, observing the child, and testing the child's intelligence and adaptive behavior. 

Children who have low scores in both IQ and adaptive behavior are considered intellectually disabled. After establishing a diagnosis, a team of healthcare providers will assess children's weaknesses and strengths to know the kind and amount of support they need to be able to function at school, home, and community. 

Treatment and Support

There are early intervention programs available for infants and toddlers. Healthcare professionals can work with parents to create an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which can help outline the specific needs and services of children with intellectual disability. Early intervention usually includes:

  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Family counseling
  • Assistive technology device training
  • Nutrition services

School-age children, including preschoolers with intellectual disabilities, are qualified for a free special education through the public school system as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Parents and educators also work together to come up with an individualized education program (IEP), which outlines children's needs and the services they will receive at school. The main goal of special education is to allow children with intellectual disabilities to function well in the classroom. Special education often involves certain accommodations, adaptations, and modifications that can help children in the classroom. 


There are causes of intellectual disability that can be prevented. One of the most common preventable causes of intellectual disability in children is fetal alcohol syndrome. For this reason, pregnant women must avoid alcohol consumption at all costs. Other pregnancy essentials include proper prenatal care, prenatal vitamin intake, and vaccination against certain diseases. All of these things can help lower your child's risk of being born with intellectual disabilities.

Genetic testing may be recommended before conception if there is a family history of genetic abnormalities. To look for other problems that are linked to intellectual disabilities, ultrasound, amniocentesis, and certain tests are performed during pregnancy. Unfortunately, these tests only identify the problems, and not correct them. 

Helping Intellectually Disabled Children

  • Learn more about intellectual disabilities in children. The more you know, the better. 
  • Try to encourage independence in your child. Allow them to do things on their own, and provide guidance when needed. Also, allow them to try on new things. Let them explore and try to give positive feedback when they master new skills or anything new.
  • Allow your child to be involved in group or team activities to help develop social skills in your child. 
  • Monitor your child's progress in school by keeping in touch with the teachers. 
  • Get to know other parents or caregivers of intellectually disabled children. These people are one of the best sources of emotional and mental support when it comes to taking care of children with intellectual disabilities.