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Intellectual Disabilities

✧ Matt hew’s S
Matthew’ tory ✧
Story ✧ What are
Matt is 15 years old. Because Matt
Intel lectual Disabi
tellectual lit
Disabilit ies?? ✧
has an intellectual disability, he has Intellectual disability is a term used
NICHCY Disability Fact Sheet—No. 8

been receiving special education when a person has certain limitations

services since elementary school. in mental functioning and in skills
These services have helped him such as communicating, taking care of
tremendously, because they are him or herself, and social skills. These
designed to fit his special learning limitations will cause a child to learn
needs. and develop more slowly than a
Last year he started high school. typical child.
He, his family, and the school took a Children with intellectual
good hard look at what he wants to disabilities (sometimes called cognitive
do when secondary school is over. disabilities or mental retardation) may
Does he want more education? A job? take longer to learn to speak, walk,
Does he have the skills he needs to live and take care of their personal needs
on his own? such as dressing or eating. They are
Answering these questions has likely to have trouble learning in
helped Matt and the school plan for school. They will learn, but it will take
the future. He’s always been interested them longer. There may be some
in the outdoors, in plants, and things they cannot learn.
especially in trees. He knows all the
tree names and can recognize them by
their leaves and bark. So this year he’s
learning about jobs like forestry,
landscaping, and grounds mainte-
nance. Next year he hopes to get a
part-time job. He’s learning to use is the
public transportation, so he’ll be able National Dissemination Center
to get to and from the job. for Children with Disabilities.
Having an intellectual disability
makes it harder for Matt to learn new NICHCY
things. He needs things to be very 1825 Connecticut Avenue N.W.
concrete. But he’s determined. He Washington, DC 20009
wants to work outside, maybe in the 1.800.695.0285 (Voice / TTY)
park service or in a greenhouse, and 202.884.8200 (Voice / TTY)
he’s getting ready!

Disabi lit
lityy F
Disabilit act S
Fact heet, N
Sheet, o. 8
August 2009
✧ What Causes an • daily living skills, such as getting dressed, going to
the bathroom, and feeding one’s self;
Intel lectual Disabi
tellectual lit
Disabilit y? ✧
lity? • communication skills, such as understanding what is
Doctors have found many causes of intellectual said and being able to answer;
disabilities. The most common are: • social skills with peers, family members, adults, and
• Genetic conditions. Sometimes an intellectual disabil- others.
ity is caused by abnormal genes inherited from To diagnose an intellectual disability, professionals
parents, errors when genes combine, or other look at the person’s mental abilities (IQ) and his or her
reasons. Examples of genetic conditions are Down adaptive skills. Both of these are highlighted in the
syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and phenylketonuria definition of this disability in the box on page 4. This
(PKU). definition comes from the Individuals with Disabilities
• Problems during pregnancy. An intellectual disability Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that
can result when the baby does not develop inside the guides how schools provide early intervention and
mother properly. For example, there may be a special education and related services to children with
problem with the way the baby’s cells divide as it disabilities. In IDEA, the term mental retardation is used,
grows. A woman who drinks alcohol or gets an not intellectual disabilities.
infection like rubella during pregnancy may also Providing services to help individuals with intellec-
have a baby with an intellectual disability. tual disabilities has led to a new understanding of how
• Problems at birth. If a baby has problems during we define the term. After the initial diagnosis is made, we
labor and birth, such as not getting enough oxygen, look at a person’s strengths and weaknesses. We also look
he or she may have an intellectual disability. at how much support or help the person needs to get
• Health problems. Diseases like whooping cough, the along at home, in school, and in the community. This
measles, or meningitis can cause intellectual disabili- approach gives a realistic picture of each individual. It
ties. They can also be caused by extreme malnutri- also recognizes that the “picture” can change. As the
tion (not eating right), not getting enough medical person grows and learns, his or her ability to get along in
care, or by being exposed to poisons like lead or the world grows as well.
An intellectual disability is not a disease. You can’t
✧ How Common are
catch an intellectual disability from anyone. It’s also not Intel lectual Disabi
tellectual lit
Disabilit ies? ✧
a type of mental illness, like depression. There is no cure
for intellectual disabilities. However, most children with As many as 3 out of every 100 people in the country
an intellectual disability can learn to do many things. It have an intellectual disability (The Arc, 2001). Over
just takes them more time and effort than other children. 580,000 children ages 6 to 21 have some level of
intellectual disability and need special education in
✧ HHowow are IInntel lectual
tellectual school (Twenty-seventh Annual Report to Congress, U.S.
Department of Education, 2005). In fact, 1 out of every
Disabilities Diagnosed? ✧ 10 children who need special education has some form
of intellectual disability.
Intellectual disabilities are diagnosed by looking at
two main things. These are: ✧ What are tthehe Signs of
• the ability of a person’s brain to learn, think, solve
problems, and make sense of the world (called IQ or
Intel lectual Disabi
tellectual lityy? ✧
intellectual functioning); and There are many signs of an intellectual disability. For
• whether the person has the skills he or she needs to example, children with an intellectual disability may:
live independently (called adaptive behavior, or • sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children;
adaptive functioning).
• learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking,
Intellectual functioning, or IQ, is usually measured
• find it hard to remember things,
by a test called an IQ test. The average score is 100.
People scoring below 70 to 75 are thought to have an • not understand how to pay for things,
intellectual disability. To measure adaptive behavior, • have trouble understanding social rules,
professionals look at what a child can do in comparison
• have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions,
to other children of his or her age. Certain skills are
important to adaptive behavior. These are: • have trouble solving problems, and/or
• have trouble thinking logically.
NICHCY: 1.800.695.0285 2 Fact Sheet on Intellectual Disability (FS8)
✧ Tips for Paren
Parents ✧
arents ✧ Tips for Teachers ✧
❑ Learn about intellectual disability. ❑ Learn as much as you can about intellectual
The more you know, the more you disability. The organizations listed on page
can help yourself and your child. 4 will help you identify specific techniques
See the list of resources and and strategies to support the student
organizations on page 4 of this educationally. We’ve also listed some
publication. strategies below.
❑ Encourage independence in your child. For ❑ Recognize that you can make an enormous
example, help your child learn daily care difference in this student’s life! Find out
skills, such as dressing, feeding him or herself, what the student’s strengths and interests are,
using the bathroom, and grooming. and emphasize them. Create opportunities
❑ Give your child chores. Keep her age, attention
for success.
span, and abilities in mind. Break down jobs ❑ If you are not part of the student’s Individu-
into smaller steps. For example, if your child’s alized Education Program (IEP) team, ask
job is to set the table, first ask her to get the for a copy of his or her IEP. The student’s
right number of napkins. Then have her put educational goals will be listed there, as well
one at each family member’s place at the table. as the services and classroom accommoda-
Do the same with the utensils, going one at a tions he or she is to receive. Talk to special-
time. Tell her what to do, step by step, until ists in your school (e.g., special educators),
the job is done. Demonstrate how to do the as necessary. They can help you identify
job. Help her when she needs assistance. effective methods of teaching this student,
❑ Give your child frequent feedback. Praise your
ways to adapt the curriculum, and how to
child when he or she does well. Build your address the student’s IEP goals in your
child’s abilities. classroom.
❑ Be as concrete as possible. Demonstrate what
❑ Find out what skills your child is learning at
school. Find ways for your child to apply you mean rather than just giving verbal
those skills at home. For example, if the directions. Rather than just relating new
teacher is going over a lesson about money, information verbally, show a picture. And
take your child to the supermarket with you. rather than just showing a picture, provide
Help him count out the money to pay for the student with hands-on materials and
your groceries. Help him count the change. experiences and the opportunity to try things
❑ Find opportunities in your community for
❑ Break longer, new tasks into small steps.
social activities, such as scouts, recreation
center activities, sports, and so on. These will Demsonstrate the steps. Have the student do
help your child build social skills as well as to the steps, one at a time. Provide assistance,
have fun. as necessary.
❑ Give the student immediate feedback.
❑ Talk to other parents whose children have an
intellectual disability. Parents can share ❑ Teach the student life skills such as daily
practical advice and emotional support. Visit living, social skills, and occupational
NICHCY’s State-Specific Resources page awareness and exploration,
( as appropriate. Involve the
and find a parent group near you. student in group activities or
❑ Meet with the school and develop an
educational plan to address your child’s ❑ Work together with the
needs. Keep in touch with your child’s student’s parents and other
teachers. Offer support. Find out how you can school personnel to create
support your child’s school learning at home. and implement an educational plan tailored
to meet the student’s needs. Regularly share
information about how the student is doing
at school and at home.

Fact Sheet on Intellectual Disability (FS8) 3 NICHCY: 1.800.695.0285

About 87% of people with an intellectual disability
will only be a little slower than average in learning new Our nation’s special education law, the IDEA, defines
information and skills. When they are children, their mental retardation as . . .
limitations may not be obvious. They may not even be “. . . significantly subaverage general intellectual
diagnosed as having an intellectual disability until they functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in
get to school. As they become adults, many people with adaptive behavior and manifested during the
mild intellectual disabilities can live independently. Other developmental period, that adversely affects a
people may not even consider them as having an child’s educational performance.”
intellectual disability.
34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(6)
The remaining 13% of people with an intellectual
disability score below 50 on IQ tests. These people will
have more difficulty in school, at home, and in the • taking care of personal needs (dressing, bathing,
community. A person with more severe intellectual disabil- going to the bathroom);
ity will need more intensive support his or her entire life.
• health and safety;
Every child with an intellectual disability is able to • home living (helping to set the table, cleaning the
learn, develop, and grow. With help, all children with house, or cooking dinner);
intellectual disabilities can live a satisfying life.
• social skills (manners, knowing the rules of conversa-
✧ What About School?? ✧
School tion, getting along in a group, playing a game);
• reading, writing, and basic math; and
A child with an intellectual disability can do well in
school but is likely to need individualized help. • as they get older, skills that will help them in the
Fortunately, states are responsible for meeting the workplace.
educational needs of children with disabilities. Supports or changes in the classroom (called adapta-
For children up to age three, services are provided through tions) help most students with intellectual disabilities.
an early intervention system. Staff work with the child’s Some common changes that help students with intellec-
family to develop what is known as an Individualized tual disabilities are listed in the “Tips for Teachers” box on
Family Services Plan, or IFSP. The IFSP will describe the page 3. The organizations below also offer a great deal of
child’s unique needs. It also describes the services the child information on ways to help children with intellectual
will receive to address those needs. The IFSP will empha- disabilities.
size the unique needs of the family, so that parents and
other family members will know how to help their young
✧ Organizations ✧
child. Early intervention services may be provided on a The Arc of the United States, 1010 Wayne Avenue, Suite 650,
sliding-fee basis, meaning that the costs to the family will Silver Spring, MD 20910. Phone: 301.565.3842;
depend upon their income. In some states, early interven- 800.433.5255. E-mail:
tion services may be at no cost to parents. Web:

For eligible school-aged children (including American Association on Intellectual and Developmental
preschoolers), special education and related services are Disabilities (formerly American Association on Mental
made available through the school system. School staff will Retardation, AAMR), 501 3rd Street NW, Suite 200,
work with the child’s parents to develop an Washington, D.C. 20001. Phone: 202.387.1968; 800.424.3688
(Toll Free, outside of DC). Web:
Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The IEP is
similar to an IFSP. It describes the child’s unique needs and Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities (DADD),
the services that have been designed to meet those needs. The Council for Exceptional Children, 1110 North Glebe
Special education and related services are provided at no Road, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22201-5704. Phone:
cost to parents. 703.620.3660; 866.915.5000 (TTY); 888.232.7733.
E-mail: Web:
Many children with intellectual disabilities need help
with adaptive skills, which are skills needed to live, work,
and play in the community. Teachers and parents can help
a child work on these skills at both school and home.
Some of these skills include:
• communicating with others;
FS8, August 2009
This publication is copyright free. Readers are encouraged to copy
and share it, but please credit the National Dissemination
Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY).