What are intellectual disabilities?

Intellectual disability (ID) is a term used to describe problems with general mental abilities in two areas:

  • Intellectual functioning—learning, judgement and problem-solving.
  • Adaptive functioning—activities of daily life such as independent living and communication.

Therefore, an individual with intellectual disabilities has impaired cognitive functioning and skills, such as communication, and social and self-care skills are also impaired. These constraints can lead a child to develop and learn slower or differently than a typical child. Intellectual disability can occur at any age before a child reaches the age of eighteen, even before birth. The most frequently diagnosed developmental condition is intellectual disability. Roughly 1% of the population has an intellectual disability, with about 85% of those having a mild intellectual disability (Ke & Liu, 2012). Males are more likely to be diagnosed with intellectual disability than females.

Types of intellectual disabilities (ID):

Someone with an intellectual impairment has a full-scale IQ score of 70-75 (the median IQ is 100). However, the IQ score must be interpreted within the context of the individual’s difficulties in general mental abilities. An individual diagnosed with ID may more than likely also experience considerable difficulties with daily activities such as self-care, safety, communication, and socialisation. The following are examples of intellectual disabilities:

  • Fragile X Syndrome
  • Down Syndrome
  • Developmental Delay
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS)
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum (FAS)

How are intellectual disabilities treated?

Intellectual impairment is a condition that lasts a lifetime. Although there is no cure, most people can learn to enhance their functioning with time. Early and consistent multi-disciplinary interventions can typically improve functionality, allowing a person to thrive. There are also many medical conditions that are comorbid with certain intellectual disability sub-types, for example, Down syndrome is often accompanied by congenital heart disease. Thus, medical intervention and regular follow-ups with doctors and physicians may be necessary. A person's diagnosis usually determines the services and rights they are qualified for under national legislation, such as special education, home, or community services. It can also assist in determining the supportive services they may require.

Treatments can include:

  • Psycho-education
  • Family supportive therapy
  • Special education and academic support, such as individual education plans
  • Transition services that help people with intellectual disabilities transition to adulthood after high school
  • Daily programmes
  • Case managers to help organise services and ensure that the individual receives proper care vocational programs, such as job coaching or skill learning housing choices.
  • Psychiatric and/or psychological services
  • Services in speech and language pathology or audiology
  • Psychotherapy for assistance with emotional, behavioural and adaptive functioning, and rehabilitation
  • Assistive technology or adapted equipment
1When do intellectual disabilities (ID) typically present themselves?
Intellectual impairment manifests itself in early childhood or adolescence. By the age of two, delays in language or motor skills may be evident. On the other hand, mild levels of intellectual disability may not be detected until a child reaches school age when they are having academic difficulties. To receive a diagnosis of ID, the DSM -5 sets age of onset as being before age 18 years.
2Can intellectual disabilities be caused by genetics?
Genetic abnormalities are the root of many intellectual impairments. Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome are the two most common genetic causes of intellectual impairments. It is important to note that overlapping genetic, environmental and socio-cultural causes are likely to be relevant in many cases of ID.