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Intellectual disability facts for kids

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Intellectual disability (also called intellectual developmental disability, general learning disability) is an illness of the brain. Intellectual disability often starts when someone is very young.

What is an intellectual disability?

An intellectual disability is defined as an intelligence quotient (IQ) score of less than 70. For someone to have intellectual disability, they also have to have trouble with parts of daily life. There are two different groups of intellectual disability. The first is syndromic intellectual disability. This means that the intellectual disability is a part of a different medical issue, like Down syndrome. The second is non-syndromic intellectual disability. This means that the intellectual disability is not a part of a different medical issue.

In addition to the two different types, there are three levels of intellectual disability. The first and most common is mild intellectual disability. Someone with mild intellectual disability can usually act without help from other people, but may need help with things like paying taxes. The second level is moderate intellectual disability. Someone with moderate intellectual disability has an IQ between 40 and 55. They cannot live by themselves, but can be taught to perform basic tasks. The third level is severe intellectual disability. Someone with severe intellectual disability needs a lot of help and can only do simple things.

What does intellectual disability look like?

The symptoms of intellectual disability are all behavioral. The “typical look” of someone with intellectual disability only occurs in syndromic intellectual disability. People with intellectual disability may have some or all of these:

  • They may learn to crawl, walk, or talk later than other children.
  • They may have trouble remembering things.
  • They may have trouble learning how to act in public.
  • They may have trouble figuring out problems.
  • They may learn how to take care of themselves slower.
  • They may not learn when to not say or do something.

Children with intellectual disability will not learn things as fast as other children. They may need to be taught a certain way so that they can remember it. Most children with intellectual disabilities can learn these skills though. Mild intellectual disability may not be seen until a child starts school. Moderate and severe intellectual disability can be seen before a child starts school.


The cause of such an illness usually lies in childhood, or in genetic disorders. The cause of a child’s intellectual disability is not known between one-third and one-half of the time. The most common causes are Down syndrome, velocariofacial syndrome, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Other causes are:

  • Problems with genes. Intellectual disability can be caused in different ways by genes not acting normally. Down syndrome is an example of this.
  • Problems with pregnancy. Intellectual disability can be caused when there are things that cause the fetus to nor develop normally. Fetal alcohol syndrome is an example of this.
  • Problems with birth. If there is a problem when a child is born, like not getting enough oxygen, it can hurt the brain and lead to intellectual disability later.
  • Diseases and poisons. Some diseases, like meningitis, can cause intellectual disability later if not taken care of properly. Poisonous materials like lead and mercury can also cause intellectual disability if eaten or drank.
  • A lack of iodine. In the developing world, a lack of iodine can lead to several medical issues, including intellectual disability. The most common way to prevent this is adding iodine to salt.
  • Malnutrition. In parts of the world where food is not common, the lack of nutrition can lead to intellectual disability over time.

Intellectual disability is different from dementia. In dementia, people forget things, and they lose skills they once had. People with an intellectual disability never learn those skills.


In the DSM, there are three things that have to be true for someone to have intellectual disability. The first is that they have to have a low intelligence quotient (IQ). IQ is found by taking an IQ test. If someone has an IQ of below 70, they may have an intellectual disability. Now, someone must also have the other two criteria to have intellectual disability.

The second criteria is having trouble in more than one area of normal daily activities. These activities are known as adaptive behavior. To see if a child is having trouble with these, a doctor will talk to people who know the child. Some examples of adaptive behavior are:

  • Getting dressed
  • Using the bathroom
  • Eating and drinking
  • Being able to have a conversation
  • Acting properly in different situations

The third criteria is that the issues have to begin in childhood or adolescence. If the issues do not start at a young age, they are probably caused by a different illness of the brain.


There is currently no cure for intellectual disability. Those affected can learn to cope and do many things, if they get enough support and are taught well. There are many places around the world for someone with intellectual disability to get help. These places can take care of people with intellectual disabilities, as well as help them find jobs, find a house of their own, or help them take care of their children.

There are some different ways for people with intellectual disability and those around them to learn how to help the person with the disability. One kind is psychosocial treatment. This is meant for very young children. Psychosocial treatment helps them learn basic skills and increase learning over their lifetime. Another kind is behavioral treatment. This is meant to help young people, but can be used for adults as well. Behavior treatment helps teach language skills as well as social skills like sharing or following instructions. A third kind of help is cognitive-behavioral treatment. This is a combination of the previous two treatments. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps children with intellectual disability both learn skills and learn how to plan ahead. Another type of help a person with intellectual disability can get is family-oriented help. Family-oriented help focuses on teaching family members how to help the person in their family with intellectual disability.

Many people with an intellectual disability have other health problems, for which they will be given specific drugs. As an example, autistic children with developmental delay may use anti-psychotics or mood stabilizers to help with behavior. Giving drugs to intellectually disabled people needs to be monitored; side-effects often occur, and are wrongly diagnosed as problems with behavior or as psychiatric problems.


People with intellectual disability are often treated badly by people without disabilities. They are often not allowed to make choices about their own lives and are not considered a full part of society. Their abusers are often people who are supposed to care for them.

The dignity and human rights of people with intellectual disability are protected by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as other disabilities and equally like other persons without disabilities.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Discapacidad intelectual para niños

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