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Help With Intellectual Disability

Curated and updated for the community by APA

Intellectual disability involves problems with general mental abilities that affect functioning in two areas:

  • intellectual functioning (such as learning, reasoning)
  • adaptive functioning (activities of daily life such as communication and independent living)

Intellectual disability affects about one percent of the population, and of those about 85 percent have mild intellectual disability.

See definition, symptoms, & treatment

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ARC for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

I have heard the terms intellectual disability and developmental disability. Are they the same?

These terms are not the same, though there is some overlap. Developmental disability is a broad category that includes intellectual disability (ID) as well as autism spectrum disorder and other developmental diagnoses. Intellectual disability refers to people whose cognitive ability and adaptive functioning are significantly below average. People with autism spectrum disorder have difficulties with social interaction and impairments in communication; many also have intellectual disability. Read More

At what age can a child be evaluated for intellectual disability?

Parents and caretakers are often the first to notice delays in a child’s development.

If you’re concerned about the development of your infant or toddler, or you suspect your child has a disability, talk with your child’s pediatrician. You may also contact your local early Intervention program directly (see links below) and ask to have your child evaluated. Early intervention is a national system of services that helps babies and toddlers (birth to 3 years) with developmental delays or disabilities. Evaluation is provided free of charge.

See contact information for state early intervention programs. Learn more about early intervention from the Center for Parent Information and Resources. Read More

What is involved in diagnosing intellectual disability?

Intellectual disability involves problems in both intellectual and adaptive functioning.

Intellectual functioning is assessed with an exam by a doctor and through standardized testing. While a specific full-scale IQ test score is no longer required for diagnosis, standardized testing is used as part of diagnosing intellectual disability. A full scale IQ score of around 70 to 75 indicates a significant limitation in intellectual functioning. However, the IQ score must be considered in relation to the bigger picture of the person’s general mental abilities. Also, specific areas of intellectual functioning (identified in IQ subtest scores) can vary a great deal. So the full scale IQ score may not accurately reflect overall intellectual functioning.

Adaptive functioning refers to a child’s abilities with common skills needed for everyday life compared to other children the same age. Three areas of adaptive functioning are considered: conceptual (such as language and academic skills); social (such as communication skills and the ability to follow rules); and practical (such as personal care and other daily life skills). Adaptive functioning is assessed through standardized measures (questionnaires/checklists) with the individual and through interviews with family members, teachers and caregivers. Read More


About the Expert:

Mark J. Hauser, M.D.
Psychiatrist practicing in the Greater Boston Area
President, On-Site Psychiatric Services, Inc.

Jordan's Story

Jordan, 32, loves his work. He lives with and assists his aging grandparents. He is able to help them with cooking, cleaning, and exercising daily. Jordan has been very successful at helping his grandparents live independently by maintaining the basic chores of their home and keeping a structured environment for them. He describes himself as "a good helper."

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Have a Story of Your Own to Share?

Editor's Choice

OCTOBER 10, 2018

Film Challenges IQ Testing, Limits Placed on People with Intellectual Disabilities

The Frostig Center is proud to host a screening of the new documentary Intelligent Lives, which is shattering stereotypes about what it means to be “intelligent” and opening doors to more inclusive education and employment. Intelligent Lives stars three young adults with intellectual disabilities who challenge perceptions of intelligence as they navigate high school, college, and the workforce. Academy Award-winning actor and narrator Chris Cooper contextualizes the lives of these central characters through the emotional story of his son Jesse, as the film unpacks the shameful and ongoing track record of intelligence testing in the U.S.

OCTOBER 3, 2018

Abandoning Restraint And Seclusion Has Unexpected Benefits, Study Finds

Disability Scoop

When a large service provider for people with developmental disabilities decided to move away from using restraint and seclusion, a new study finds safety improved and costs went down. Over a 12-year period, restraints decreased 99 percent and seclusion was eliminated at the Virginia-based Grafton Integrated Health Network, which serves more than 3,200 people with intellectual, developmental and psychiatric disabilities in residential and community-based settings. At the same time, the provider saw a 64 percent decline in client-induced staff injury and an estimated savings of $16 million in associated costs from overtime, turnover and workers’ compensation. Clients, meanwhile, were far more likely to achieve mastery in their goals.

SEPTEMBER 28, 2018

Kiwi Robert Martin MNZM becomes first person with intellectual disability to chair UN session

Kiwi Robert Martin MNZM became the first person with an intellectual disability to chair a United Nations session on Wednesday. Mr Martin, currently serving a three-year term as an independent expert on the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, says the occasion in Geneva was empowering - but he was initially uncertain.

JULY 20, 2018

Special Olympics 50th Anniversary: How a Chicago PE teacher helped change our views of intellectual disabilities

ABC7 Chicago

In 1967, Burke came up with the idea to hold a one-day, Olympic-style track meet for people with intellectual disabilities throughout Chicago. In March 1968, the Kennedy Foundation and Chicago Park District announced the first Special Olympics would be held at Soldier Field. The first Special Olympics International Summer Games on July 20 involved about 1,000 athletes from the United States and Canada participating in more than 200 events, from the high jump to water polo. While the games were a competition, they were also an opportunity to uplift the community and have a whole lot of fun.

JULY 16, 2018

Adults with disabilities are aging in place with community support

Times Record

Independence Association was founded in Brunswick more than 50 years ago to assist people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) in enjoying full lives as members of their chosen communities. Since 1966, the agency has grown to serve some 400 people in nine Maine counties. Those clients include residents of 14 staffed homes and two supported apartment buildings in Brunswick, Durham, Topsham, Bath and Freeport. Nearly a third of the residents are aged 60 and older. And their "aging in place" is becoming mission-critical for Independence Association.

JUNE 29, 2018

Media stereotyping: 'The person with an intellectual disability is treated as either 'heroic' or 'tragic''

The Journal, Ireland

The media have a key role to play in perception where currently the person with an intellectual disability is treated as either 'heroic' or 'tragic.' According to Piggott: "The reality is that most people live ordinary lives. As children, they just want to play, go to school, swim or go dancing just as others do. The child with the disability internalises the message 'If I don't feel welcome or respected, then that makes me feel less confident.' This needs to change. We need to welcome babies with disabilities into the world, and support their families too."