What Is Intellectual Disability?

What Is an Intellectual Disability?

Whether or not you’ve been involved with the Special Olympics community, you’ve likely heard the term “intellectual disability.” This can be a blanket term to describe a disability that can affect cognitive or intellectual functioning. The Special Olympics team is breaking down this general term: what it means, signs and symptoms, and what to do if you think your child may have an intellectual disability.

An intellectual disability involves problems with general mental abilities, and will generally affect functioning in one of two ways. Intellectual functioning is one area that can be affected by an intellectual disability – this can include difficulties with learning, problem solving and judgment. Adaptive functioning can also be affected by an intellectual disability. This can include difficulties with activities of daily life, such as communication skills and independent living. The intellectual and adaptive deficits will generally begin early in a child’s development period. Intellectual disability affects 1% of the population, and an estimated 85% of those that are affected have what is classified as a mild intellectual disability.

Signs & Symptoms of Intellectual Disability

There are various signs of intellectual disability that parents may notice in their children. Sometimes these signs will be displayed later, in school-age children, or sometimes these signs are noticeable in toddlers or babies. These signs can include:

  • Children who sit-up, walk, or crawl later than other children their age.
  • Children who learn to talk later than their peers, or have difficulty learning to speak.
  • Children who find it hard to remember things.
  • Children who have difficulty understanding social rules.
  • Children who have difficulty problem-solving.
  • Children who have difficulty understanding and seeing the results of their actions.

Intellectual disability may cause children to learn slower than their peers, have a hard time communicating their wants and needs, or experience delays in learning to speak, walk, or eat. There are many causes of intellectual disabilities, which can occur anytime in childhood, up until the age of 18, or even before birth.

Most Common Causes of Intellectual Disability

We mentioned that there are many causes of intellectual disability, but there are some that are more common than others, especially ones that occur during pregnancy and cause intellectual disabilities in infants. Some of these most common causes include:

Genetic Conditions

An intellectual disability can be caused by abnormal genes that are inherited from the parents, errors when genes are combined, or spontaneous gene mutations that result in a genetic abnormality. Examples of genetic conditions that cause intellectual disability and delays include Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and PKU.

Complications During Pregnancy

An intellectual disability may also occur when a baby does not properly develop in utero. There may be a problem in the way the cells divide during the development of the baby, which can result in an intellectual disability. Mothers who drink alcohol or contract infections, such as rubella, during pregnancy also may experience complications that can result in an intellectual disability.

Problems During Birth

If there are complications during birth, such as a baby not receiving enough oxygen for a period of time during the process, it may cause an intellectual disability.

Diseases or Toxic Exposure

Certain diseases that can be contracted by children, such as the measles, whooping cough, or meningitis, can cause intellectual disabilities in young children. Exposure to lead or mercury, extreme malnutrition, or a lack of proper medical care can also result in intellectual disabilities in children.

Intellectual Disability Treatment

An intellectual disability is not contagious like an illness, and it is also not a mental illness like depression. There is no cure for an intellectual disability; however, there are treatments that can help your child get the care they need and help them learn at their own pace. Early and ongoing intervention may help your child improve functioning and thrive throughout their lifetime. Different forms of intervention and treatment options that are available include:

  • Early intervention for infants and toddlers
  • Special education
  • Family dupport
  • Transition services from childhood to adulthood.
  • Day programs for adults
  • Vocational programs
  • Housing and residential programs and options

A diagnosis is often required to begin utilizing these programs and exploring treatment options. The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) stresses the importance of diagnosis and evaluations and the key to helping those with intellectual disabilities utilize the programs and support systems they need to thrive.

How Common Is Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual disability is fairly common, affecting around 1-3% of our global population. There are an estimated 6.5 million people in the United States who have an intellectual disability, and 200 million people worldwide.

What To Do if You Think Your Child May Have Intellectual Disability

If you think your child may have an intellectual disability, there are resources available to you as a parent. One of the first steps would be speaking to your doctor to determine if the signs or symptoms you are noticing are signs of an intellectual disability. It is important to ask for help, and use all resources to learn about your child’s disability. Connecting with other parents is a great way to learn more while also developing a community. Be patient with your child – learning may come slower for them, but helping them throughout the process and giving them grace and patience will help. Educate yourself on the options for your child’s education and future. Encourage independence and look for opportunities for your child to connect with other peers. Organizations like the Special Olympics Arizona provide children the opportunity to have fun, connect with peers, and independently reach towards a goal. Remember that your child may learn slower, but they will still be able to lead a fulfilling life and thrive in the right environment, if we work together to give them and you the tools to do so.





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