What is an Intellectual Disability?
What is an Intellectual Disability?
Intellectual disability is a term used when a person has certain limitations in mental functioning and in skills such as communicating, taking care of him or herself, and social skills. These limitations will cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than a typical child.
Children with intellectual disabilities (sometimes called cognitive disabilities or, previously, mental retardation) may take longer to learn to speak, walk, and take care of their personal needs such as dressing or eating. They are likely to have trouble learning in school. They will learn, but it will take them longer. There may be some things they cannot learn.
What Causes an Intellectual Disability?
Doctors have found many causes of intellectual disabilities. The most common are:
- Genetic conditions. Sometimes an intellectual disability is caused by abnormal genes inherited from parents, errors when genes combine, or other reasons. Examples of genetic conditions are Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and phenylketonuria (PKU).
- Problems during pregnancy. An intellectual disability can result when the baby does not develop inside the mother properly. For example, there may be a problem with the way the baby’s cells divide as it grows. A woman who drinks alcohol or gets an infection like rubella during pregnancy may also have a baby with an intellectual disability.
- Problems at birth. If a baby has problems during labor and birth, such as not getting enough oxygen, he or she may have an intellectual disability.
- Health problems. Diseases like whooping cough, the measles, or meningitis can cause intellectual disabilities. They can also be caused by extreme malnutrition (not eating right), not getting enough medical care, or by being exposed to poisons like lead or mercury.
An intellectual disability is not a disease. You can’t catch an intellectual disability from anyone. It’s also not a type of mental illness, like depression. There is no cure for intellectual disabilities. However, most children with an intellectual disability can learn to do many things. It just takes them more time and effort than other children.
How much do you know about intellectual disabilities? | Matthew Williams | TEDxVancouver
How Common are Intellectual Disabilities?
Intellectual disability is one of the most common developmental disability. It is estimated that seven to eight million people in the United States have an intellectual disability, which means that 1 in 10 families are affected. (1) More than 425,000 children (ages 3-21) have some level of intellectual disability and receive special education services in public school under this category in IDEA, the nation’s special education law. (2) In fact, 7% of the children who need special education have some form of intellectual disability. (3)
What are the Signs of Intellectual Disability?
There are many signs of an intellectual disability. For example, children with an 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,
- not understand how to pay for things,
- have trouble understanding social rules,
- have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions,
- have trouble solving problems, and/or
- have trouble thinking logically.
How are Intellectual Disabilities Diagnosed?
Intellectual disabilities are diagnosed by looking at two main things. These are:
- the ability of a person’s brain to learn, think, solve problems, and make sense of the world (called IQ or intellectual functioning); and
- whether the person has the skills he or she needs to live independently (called adaptive behavior, or adaptive functioning).
Intellectual functioning, or IQ, is usually measured by a test called an IQ test. The average score is 100. People scoring below 70 to 75 are thought to have an intellectual disability. To measure adaptive behavior, professionals look at what a child can do in comparison to other children of his or her age. Certain skills are important to adaptive behavior. These are:
- daily living skills, such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and feeding one’s self;
- communication skills, such as understanding what is said and being able to answer;
- social skills with peers, family members, adults, and others.
To diagnose an intellectual disability, professionals look at the person’s mental abilities (IQ) and his or her adaptive skills. Both of these are highlighted in the definition of this disability within our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is the federal law that guides how early intervention and special education services are provided to infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disbilities. In IDEA, “intellectual disability” is defined as follows:
Definition of “Intellectual Disability” under IDEA
Until Rosa’s Law was signed into law by President Obama in October 2010, IDEA used the term “mental retardation” instead of “intellectual disability.” Rosa’s Law changed the term to be used in future to “intellectual disability.” The definition itself, however, did not change. Accordingly, “intellectual disability” is defined as…
“…significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” [34 CFR §300.8(c)(6)] _________________
Providing services to help individuals with intellectual disabilities has led to a new understanding of how we define the term. After the initial diagnosis is made, we look at a person’s strengths and weaknesses. We also look at how much support or help the person needs to get along at home, in school, and in the community. This approach gives a realistic picture of each individual. It also recognizes that the “picture” can change. As the person grows and learns, his or her ability to get along in the world grows as well.
Help for Babies and Toddlers
When a baby is born with an intellectual disability, his or her parents should know that there’s a lot of help available—and immediately. Shortly after the diagnosis of ID is confirmed, parents will want to get in touch with the early intervention system in their community. We’ll tell you how in a moment.
Early intervention is a system of services designed to help infants and toddlers with disabilities (until their 3rd birthday) and their families. It’s mandated by IDEA. Staff work with the child’s family to develop what is known as an Individualized Family Services Plan, or IFSP. The IFSP will describe the child’s unique needs as well as the services he or she will receive to address those needs. The IFSP will also emphasize the unique needs of the family so that parents and other family members will know how to help their young child with intellectual disability. Early intervention services may be provided on a sliding-fee basis, meaning that the costs to the family will depend upon their income.
To access early intervention services in your area, ask your child’s pediatrician for a referral or call the local hospital’s maternity ward and ask for contact information for your local services program.
To learn more about early intervention, including how to write the IFSP, visit CPIR’s Resource Hub, starting at http://www.parentcenterhub.org/babies/
Help for School-Aged Children
Just as IDEA requires that early intervention be made available to babies and toddlers with disabilities, it requires that special education and related services be made available free of charge to every eligible child with a disability, including preschoolers (ages 3-21). These services are specially designed to address the child’s individual needs associated with the disability—in this case, an intellectual disability.
School staff will work with the child’s parents to develop an Individualized Education Program or IEP. The IEP is similar to an IFSP. It describes the child’s unique needs and the services that have been designed to meet those needs. Special education and related services are provided at no cost to parents.
To access special education services for a school-aged child in your area, get in touch with your local public school system. Calling the elementary school in your neighborhood is an excellent place to start.
There is a lot to know about the special education process, much of which you can learn here at the CPIR, which offers a wide range of publications on the topic. Start in at: http://www.parentcenterhub.org/schoolage/
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