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Intellectual Disabilities
Basic Information
Introduction to Intellectual DisabilitiesCauses of Intellectual DisabilitiesDiagnosis of Intellectual DisabilitiesHistorical & Contemporary Perspectives of Intellectual DisabilitiesIntellectual Disabilities & Supportive RehabilitationSupport for Families of People with Intellectual DisabilitiesIntellectual Disabilities Summary & ConclusionIntellectual Disabilities Resources & References
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Childhood Mental Disorders and Illnesses

What Is an Intellectual Disability?

Tammy Reynolds, B.A., C.E. Zupanick, Psy.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

There are many different types of disabilities. A disability is an impairment that limits functioning. Therefore, an intellectual disability (ID, formerly mental retardation) is a type of disability that results from limited mental capacity. As mentioned, IDs have many causes. These include genetics, brain injury, and certain medical conditions. Because IDs are not disorders, there are no treatments. Instead, people are provided additional supports. These supports help people to enjoy a satisfying life despite their disability.

magnifying glass on question markPeople with limited mental abilities struggle to develop the skills needed for independent living. Without these skills, it is hard to live in a safe and socially responsible manner. Children with IDs usually develop more slowly than their peers. They usually sit, walk, and talk much later than other children. This delayed development means they do not act their age.

Limited mental capacity makes learning very difficult. Therefore, learning new information and skills is challenging. As such, learning proceeds more slowly. It is also difficult to apply information in a practical and functional manner. People with ID have trouble grasping complex and abstract concepts. This affects their ability to develop important social skills. This is because social skills are complex and abstract.

IDs can coexist with psychiatric disorders. Some psychiatric conditions, such as autism, can cause ID. There are many other causes of ID. There are many genetic causes. Brain injuries can cause ID. Therefore, no single set of symptoms can completely describe an ID. Nonetheless, it may be useful to discuss some common characteristics.