What is intellectual disability ?

what is intellectual disability

Shyam was a low birth weight baby. His mother noticed that when compared to his elder brother, Shyam took a little longer to start talking. When Shyam started school, it would take him longer to learn to read and write when compared to his peers. It took him much longer than his brother to be potty trained. As he grew older it was incredibly difficult for Shyam to keep up with his peers in most activities including academics. At this point, a teacher suggested IQ assessment. His IQ was 69. Remedial measures were started and Shyam began receiving occupational therapy. His parents understood his issues better and were able to support him better.

What is intellectual disability?

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disability (AAIDD) defines intellectual disability as a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, and problem-solving) and in adaptive behaviour (conceptual, social, and practical skills) that emerges before the age of 18 years.

What causes intellectual disability ?

Intellectual disabilities are caused due to a disruption to the normal maturation or development of a child’s brain. These disruptions can be caused by

  • Genetic conditions – such as Down’s syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, phenylketonuria etc.
  • Exposure to infections(In the mother during pregnancy, on in the child in early life) and toxins(most common alcohol exposure in pregnancy, lead exposure in early childhood).
  • Pregnancy complications and problems during childbirth such as birth asphyxia or prolonged labour.

In a majority of children, especially in those with mild ID, the cause of intellectual disability difficult to identify.

What are the signs of intellectual disability ?

Developmental delay as characterized by a delay in rolling over, sitting, walking, talking, toilet training or other milestones. Children with ID are often Slow to learn, grasp and understand rules, concepts when compared to children their age. It may take them longer than other children to learn to dress and/or groom themselves.

Complete a developmental monitoring checklist to assess your child’s development.

How is intellectual disability diagnosed ?

All conditions that can lead to a delay in development such as communication problems, visual, hearing or expressive difficulty are ruled out and corrected. In some children, an apparent developmental delay may also be caused due to the lack of an enriching environment. ADHD and autism can present as ID. Autism is commonly associated with subnormal intelligence. IQ testing can be helpful in the diagnosis of intellectual disability – A full-scale IQ less than 70 may be suggestive of ID. However, the low IQ score must also be associated with conceptual, social and practical difficulties(empathy, social judgment, communication skills, managing money, etc.). A clinical psychologist will be able to conduct a comprehensive assessment to diagnose ID.

How is intellectual disability treated ?

Intellectual disability is a life-long condition. Once a diagnosis is made interventions are targeted on improving existing skills that can help in independent functioning and/or addition of new skills. The severity of ID guides the interventions.

  • Early intervention which may include speech therapy, physical therapy, and other types of services based on the needs of the child and family.
  • Special schooling and school-based interventions.
  • Vocational training.


Some children may need treatment with medication for behavioral disturbances and other psychiatric disorders. Intellectual disability does not confer protection from other mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

What do do when my child has ID ?

  • Educate yourself about what your child is going through.
  • Make sure you monitor your child’s development.
  • Make sure your child receives the interventions he/she requires.
  • Taking care of a child with ID can be challenging, please take care of yourself.
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