What is an intellectual disability?

Intellectual disability (once called mental retardation) is a term used when there are limits to a person’s ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life.

An intellectual disability is characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior (see below) that affect many everyday social and practical skills.

Someone is generally diagnosed as having an intellectual disability when:

  1. the person’s intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75;
  2. the person has significant limitations in adaptive skill areas as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical skills; and
  3. the disability originated before the age of 18.

“Adaptive skill areas” refer to basic skills needed for everyday life. They include communication, self care, home living, social skills, leisure, health and safety, self direction, functional academics (reading, writing, basic math), and work. Individuals with severe intellectual disabilities are more likely to have additional limitations than persons with milder intellectual disabilities.

What is an intellectual disability?According to the Administration for Community Living (ACL), it is estimated that between 7 and 8 million Americans of all ages — or three percent of the general population — experience intellectual disabilities. Nearly 30 million, or one in ten families in the United States, are directly affected by a person with intellectual disabilities at some point in their lifetime.

What is an intellectual disability like in children?

Levels of intellectual disability vary greatly in children — from a very slight problem to a very severe problem. Children with intellectual disability might have a hard time letting others know their wants and needs, and taking care of themselves.

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Intellectual disability could cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than other children of the same age. It could take longer for a child with intellectual disability to learn to speak, walk, dress, or eat without help, and they could have trouble learning in school.

Intellectual disability can be caused by a problem that starts any time before a child turns 18 years old — even before birth. It can be caused by injury, disease, or a problem in the brain. For many children, the cause of their intellectual disability is not known.

Some of the most common known causes of intellectual disability — like Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, fragile X syndrome, genetic conditions, birth defects, and infections — happen before birth. Others happen while a baby is being born or soon after birth. Still other causes of intellectual disability do not occur until a child is older; these might include serious head injury, stroke, or certain infections.

What are some of the signs of intellectual disability?

Usually, the more severe the degree of intellectual disability, the earlier the signs can be noticed. However, it might still be hard to tell how young children will be affected later in life.

There are many signs to look for. For example, children with intellectual disability may:

  • sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children
  • learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking
  • find it hard to remember things
  • have trouble understanding social rules
  • have trouble seeing the results of their actions
  • have trouble solving problems
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What can I do if I think my child may have intellectual disability?

Talk with your child’s doctor or nurse. If you or your doctor think there could be a problem, you can take your child to see a developmental pediatrician or other specialist, and you can contact your local early intervention agency (for children under 3) or public school (for children 3 and older).

To find out who to speak to in your area, you can contact the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities by visiting nichcy.org/states.htm. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has links to information for families (cdc.gov/ncbddd).

To help your child reach his or her full potential, it is very important to get help for him or her as early as possible!

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