What is an Intellectual Disability?

Jake Newby

| 3 min read

Intellectual disabilities involve complications that affect general mental abilities with both intellectual functioning (such as learning, problem solving, judgement) and adaptive functioning (activities of daily life such as communication and independent living).
Intellectual disability affects about 1% of the population and is classified as mild, moderate, and severe. 85% of those diagnosed have mild intellectual disability. When a child is diagnosed with an intellectual disability, they will likely learn and develop at a slower rate than most children.
These deficits in intellectual and adaptive abilities begin early in the developmental period and can result from a variety of causes.

Causes of intellectual disability

Some intellectual disabilities happen before birth. In fact, some of the most common causes of intellectual disabilities – Genetic syndromes like Down syndrome and fragile X; exposure to toxins like alcohol, or certain infections during pregnancy– occur before birth.
Intellectual disability may develop after birth as well. Bouts with illnesses like meningitis, the whooping cough, or the measles can cause Intellectual disability after birth. Other causes after birth or during birth can be head trauma, exposure to toxins such as lead, or lack of oxygen during labor and delivery.
Usually, the more severe the degree of intellectual disability, the earlier the signs can be detected. While delays in language or motor skills may be seen by age two, mild levels of intellectual disability may not be identified until school age when a child has difficulty with academics.
Children with intellectual disability may:
  • Find it hard to remember things
  • Have trouble understanding social rules
  • Have trouble seeing the results of their actions
  • Have trouble solving problems
  • Learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking
  • Sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children

How is intellectual disability diagnosed?

While some conditions that lead to intellectual disability may be diagnosed with a genetic test or a newborn screening, further testing may be necessary to determine severity. Health care providers diagnose intellectual disabilities through a series of intelligence and/or cognition tests, often assessed by the range of scores on an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test. IQ tests allow providers to examine a person’s ability to learn, think, problem solve and make sense of the world.
Clinicians also observe assess adaptive behavior to find signs of intellectual disability. Adaptive behaviors including coping skills and the way children interact with others.

What should I do if I think my child has intellectual disability?

Getting help as early as possible should be the no. 1 goal.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends talking with your child’s doctor or nurse. If they notice 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 the age of 3) or public school (for children 3 and older).
Here is the contact information for the Michigan Alliance for Families (Parent Information & Resources):
  • Address: 1325 S. Washington Avenue in Lansing, MI 48910 
  • Toll-free phone number: (800) 552-4821 (Statewide)
  • E-mail: info@michiganallianceforfamilies.org
  • Website: michiganallianceforfamilies.org
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MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association