Intellectual disability (ID), once called mental retardation, is characterized by below-average intelligence or mental ability and a lack of skills necessary for day-to-day living. People with intellectual disabilities can and do learn new skills, but they learn them more slowly. There are varying degrees of intellectual disability, from mild to profound.
What is intellectual disability?
Someone with intellectual disability has limitations in two areas. These areas are:
IQ (intelligence quotient) is measured by an IQ test. The average IQ is 100, with the majority of people scoring between 85 and 115. A person is considered intellectually disabled if he or she has an IQ of less than 70 to 75.
To measure a child’s adaptive behaviors, a specialist will observe the child’s skills and compare them to other children of the same age. Things that may be observed include how well the child can feed or dress himself or herself; how well the child is able to communicate with and understand others; and how the child interacts with family, friends, and other children of the same age.
Intellectual disability is thought to affect about 1% of the population. Of those affected, 85% have mild intellectual disability. This means they are just a little slower than average to learn new information or skills. With the right support, most will be able to live independently as adults.
There are many different signs of intellectual disability in children. Signs may appear during infancy, or they may not be noticeable until a child reaches school age. It often depends on the severity of the disability.
In children with severe or profound intellectual disability, there may be other health problems as well. These problems may include seizures, mood disorders (anxiety, autism, etc.), motor skills impairment, vision problems, or hearing problems.
Anytime something interferes with normal brain development, intellectual disability can result. However, a specific cause for intellectual disability can only be pinpointed about a third of the time.
Certain causes of intellectual disability are preventable. The most common of these is fetal alcohol syndrome. Pregnant women shouldn’t drink alcohol. Getting proper prenatal care, taking a prenatal vitamin, and getting vaccinated against certain infectious diseases can also lower the risk that your child will be born with intellectual disabilities.
In families with a history of genetic disorders, genetic testing may be recommended before conception.
Certain tests, such as ultrasound and amniocentesis, can also be performed during pregnancy to look for problems associated with intellectual disability. Although these tests may identify problems before birth, they cannot correct them.
Intellectual disability may be suspected for many different reasons. If a baby has physical abnormalities that suggest a genetic or metabolic disorder, a variety of tests may be done to confirm the diagnosis. These include blood tests, urine tests, imaging tests to look for structural problems in the brain, or electroencephalogram (EEG) to look for evidence of seizures.
In children with developmental delays, the doctor will perform tests to rule out other problems, including hearing problems and certain neurological disorders. If no other cause can be found for the delays, the child will be referred for formal testing.
Three things factor into the diagnosis of intellectual disability: interviews with the parents, observation of the child, and testing of intelligence and adaptive behaviors. A child is considered intellectually disabled if he or she has deficits in both IQ and adaptive behaviors. If only one or the other is present, the child is not considered intellectually disabled.
After a diagnosis of intellectual disability is made, a team of professionals will assess the child’s particular strengths and weaknesses. This helps them determine how much and what kind of support the child will need to succeed at home, in school, and in the community.
For babies and toddlers, early intervention programs are available. A team of professionals works with parents to write an Individualized Family Service Plan, or IFSP. This document outlines the child’s specific needs and what services will help the child thrive. Early intervention may include speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, family counseling, and training with special assistive devices, or nutrition services.
School-age children with intellectual disabilities (including preschoolers) are eligible for special education for free through the public school system. This is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents and educators work together to create an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which outlines the child’s needs and the services the child will receive at school. The point of special education is to make adaptations, accommodations, and modifications that allow a child with an intellectual disability to succeed in the classroom.
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