One of the categories for children with disabilities under IDEA is intellectual disability which in the past has been known as cognitive disability or mental retardation. The definition of this type of disability under federal law means “a significantly sub average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” Intellectual disability is a term used when there are limits to a person’s ability to learn at an expected level and also to function in daily life at an age appropriate manner.
This type of disability affects from 1% to 3% of the total population. There are many causes for this disorder but specific reasons may not be determined. Some of the risk factors include: infections (present at birth or occurring after birth), chromosomal abnormalities (such as Down syndrome or fragile X syndrome), environmental issues, genetic abnormalities and inherited metabolic disorders, other metabolic problems, malnutrition, exposure to toxic substances or trauma (before and after birth) as well as unexplained causes.
A family may suspect a problem if the child’s motor skills, language skills and self-help skills do not seem to be developing or appear to be at a much slower rate than the child’s peers. Some of the other symptoms which may be noted include:
- continued infant-like behavior
- decreased learning ability
- failure to meet the benchmarks of intellectual development
- inability to meet academic demands at school
- lack of curiosity
The degree of impairment from intellectual disability varies widely from mild or borderline to profoundly impaired. More emphasis has been placed on the amount of intervention and care needed to enhance daily living skills with children diagnosed with intellectual disability. Treatment and intervention is to develop the child’s potential to the fullest so a team determines the child’s specific strengths and weaknesses. Special education and training may begin as early as birth depending on the diagnosis. Teaching social skills allows each child to function as normally as possible. Behavioral interventions may also be necessary to assist the child in acting more appropriately.
An intellectual disability is a lifetime disability and it is determined through the use of a multi-factored evaluation which includes not only an intelligence test (IQ) but also adaptive behavior for daily living skills, communication skills and social skills. Other tests, based upon the child’s individual needs, may also be conducted.
Services are available under IDEA for early intervention from birth until the age of three. Early intervention services are provided on a sliding-fee basis, meaning that the costs to the family will be based on their income. Once the child reaches the age of three all special education and related services are provided through the local school district. There is no cost for these services but all required services are determined through the IEP process. If your child has been diagnosed with an intellectual disability before the age of three, please contact your local school representative to discuss the transition process from early intervention to preschool/school age services.
Once the child reaches the age of 22, depending on the severity of the intellectual disability, adult services may be provided in the areas of vocational and adaptive living skills. During the years of transition from high school to adult living, plans are made and essential services are started.