Intellectual Disability

African american male relaxing outdoors at his home.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities tend to process information much more slowly, have trouble understanding the concepts of money and time, and have a hard time expressing their needs, wants, and emotions. 

A person with an intellectual disability may have trouble learning to speak, walk, dress, or eat without help. They could also have trouble learning in school or adapting to new situations. 

Symptoms of Intellectual Disability

The more severe the degree of intellectual disability, the earlier the signs appear. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Sitting up, crawling, or walking late 
  • Having trouble speaking or talking late
  • Finding it difficult to remember things 
  • Having trouble solving problems 
  • Not understanding that their actions have consequences
  • Having trouble grasping the concept of social rules 
  • Having difficulty understanding abstract things like time and money 

Diagnosing Intellectual Disability 

Intellectual disability is diagnosed by a specialist who will take into consideration the individual’s general mental abilities. This is done with the use of standardized testing. Although a full-scale IQ score is no longer required for diagnosis, the IQ score of the individual will still be interpreted in the context of mental abilities. 

Three areas of adaptive functions are also considered in the diagnosis. These are assessed through interviews with the individual, family members, teachers, and caregivers. They include: 

  • Conceptual: The three Rs, language, knowledge, reasoning, memory
  • Social: Communication skills, empathy, social judgment, friendships, following the rules
  • Practical: Self-care, such as bathing and dressing, money management, hobbies, responsibilities, organization

Causes of Intellectual Disability 

Scientists have found that there are several causes of intellectual disability. The most common include: 


These can come in the form of abnormal genes inherited from the family, problems when genes combine, or other reasons. 

Problems During Pregnancy and Childbirth

A woman who drinks alcohol, smokes cigarettes, or gets an infection might give birth to a child with an intellectual disability. The same can be said if the baby doesn’t develop properly inside the mother’s womb. 

If the baby has problems during birth, for example being born prematurely or not getting enough oxygen, this can also be a cause for intellectual disability. 

Health Problems 

If a child acquires an illness such as meningitis or the measles, this may cause intellectual disabilities. Extreme malnutrition and not eating the right food, being exposed to toxins like lead or mercury, and not getting the proper medical care as children might also cause intellectual disabilities. 

Treatment of Intellectual Disability

While there’s no cure for intellectual disability, it can be better managed so the individual can improve their functioning over time. Treatment plans are centered around learning the individual’s needs and strengths and providing the best family-centered support.