What Is Intellectual Disability? Signs And Causes In Children


Bringing a child to the world is one of the best things humans do and watching the child grow to maturity is delightful. Parents always want what’s best for their children and are always concerned and alert if they observe any form of impairment or abnormalities in a child. Indeed, a diligent parent has to be! It is overwhelming for parents to discover that their child has or developed a certain neurodevelopmental disorder but even in the midst of it, it is better to seek a medical solution, the earlier the better for detection and treatment. Being aware of what leads to certain disorders is also important, in order to have profound knowledge of the causes and ways to prevent it.  Let’s consider a disorder called Intellectual disability.

What Is Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual disability is a condition that disrupts the functionality of the brain in children and young adults resulting in abnormal brain function, and limitation in adaptive behaviour, cognitive functioning, and skills. These skills include social skills, practical skills, and conceptual skills such as self-care and speaking.

Intellectual Disability Signs

Having these limitations can make a person learn more slowly or differently than a typically developing person. Intellectual disabilities can happen before birth or after birth. Among all developmental disabilities, intellectual disability is the most common. 

How Can A Person Be Identified To Have Intellectual Disabilities?

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders disclosed three criteria that must be made for a person to be identified with Intellectual Disabilities and they include:

  • Significant limitations in general mental abilities (intellectual functioning).
  • Significant limitations in one or more areas of adaptive behaviors across multiple environments (as measured by an adaptive behavior rating scale, i.e. communication, self-help skills, interpersonal skills, and more).
  • The limitations become apparent in childhood and adolescence.
  • IQ is below 70
  • Impairment in adaptive functioning
  • The conditions can start before the age of 22.

Signs Of Intellectual Disabilities

The signs of intellectual disabilities depend on the severity of the disabilities, the underlying cause for the disability, the implementation of appropriate interventions, and co-occurring disorders. Also, the signs and symptoms of the disability vary individually depending on the level of impact, sometimes mild Intellectual disabilities do not display physical signs.

Some of the early signs are:

  • Difficulty in understanding and following social rules.
  • Problems keeping up in school.
  • Behavioral and social problems.
  • Poor planning or problem-solving.
  • Failure to adjust to new situations.
  • Failure to adapt to changes.
  • Continuing infant-like behavior 
  • Difficulty getting dressed, feeding, and washing.
  • Unable to perform developmental motor skills, such as walking, crawling, and sitting.
  • Slurred speech even after learning how to talk.
  • Failure to grow intellectually.

What Is Mild Intellectual Disability?

Children having a mild intellectual disability do not display physical signs of this disability, although if the disability is associated with a genetic disorder like Down syndrome there will be physical traits.

Children with Mild ID can learn how to read and solve puzzles and mathematical questions just at the level of a typical child aged nine to twelve. They can also carry out self-care and practical skills like cooking and moving around within the neighborhood using the local mass transit.  It has been observed that about 85% of people with ID are likely to have mild ID.

Causes Of Intellectual Disability

The causes of ID are:

  • Genetic conditions: These could be abnormal genes inherited from parents, or errors when genes combine. When estimated, about 5% of IDs are inherited. 
  • Problems during pregnancy: this is a result of the fetus not developing well and not getting enough oxygen.
  • Problems at birth: babies exposed to problems during labor and birth may be prone to brain damage leading to ID.
  • Exposure to certain types of disease: when certain diseases like whooping cough, measles, and meningitis are left untreated can cause ID.
  • Iodine deficiency: congenital iodine deficiency syndrome is caused by severe iodine deficiency and is known as a mild impairment of intelligence.
  • Absence of arcuate fasciculus: when this is absent in the brain due to poor development, it can cause ID.
  • Malnutrition: when food is insufficient and yields no beneficial nutrients to the body it can lead to reduced intelligence
  • Exposure to poison: Exposure to poisons like lead and mercury can affect mental ability. 

Read more: Understanding Teen Depression And Strategies To Help Overcome 


The parent should keep on the watch over their children in case any sign is spotted that requires urgent medical attention to reduce the severity of the illness impact. During pregnancy, be cautious of the kind of food eaten to curb cravens and what you inhale. Intellectual disability when it is not hereditary, can occur out of ignorance.

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Dr. David G Kiely is a distinguished Medical Reviewer and former General Medicine Consultant with a wealth of experience in the field. Dr. Kiely's notable career as a General Medicine Consultant highlights his significant contributions to the medical field.

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