Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18. 

There are differing levels of Intellectual Disabilities:  Most individuals with intellectual disabilites will fall into what used to be referred to as a mild range.  IQ scores will generally fall between 50 and 70, and these individuals will usually reach a mental age of 8-12. They often can care for their own needs, attend school, and hold jobs.  Individuals with a moderate ID usually reach a mental age of 5 - 8 years and require more intense educational and community supports. IQ scores will usually fall between 25 and 55.  Individuals with a more severe ID, with a mental age of 2 -3 years, are often non-verbal or have minimal speech, require constant supervision, and have significant learning and self-care needs. IQ scores will fall between 20 and 40.  Those with a profound ID are usually identified with a neurological condition. Individuals who have a profound ID have IQ scores below 20, and exhibit considerable impairment in sensory motor functioning during early childhood years.  

The needs of a child with Intellectual Disabilities are individual and varied. Each child with Intellectual Disabilities will have his/her own strengths, needs, and learning style. Verbal directions should be given in simple, concrete terms, and repeated if necessary. Leave time for processing between repetitions. It may also be helpful to give visual cues and models or hand-overhand demonstrations. Developmental tasks should be divided into small steps and worked on one step at a time. Provide many opportunities for frequent successes and positive feedback. Behavioral techniques can be helpful for teaching and setting clear positive expectations and limits. It is important to involve a child with Intellectual Disabilities with typically developing peers to encourage language, imitation and learning, as well as social interaction and play.

Important: There are many possible causes of Intellectual Disabilities or any other condition. These possible causes are not important when working with children as a Respite Provider. Placing blame is not productive in the process of creating positive outcomes for children and families. It is important for Respite Providers to get information regarding the child's needs, abilities, and progress from the parents/guardians in order to provide exemplary care.


Intellectual functioning—also called intelligence—refers to general mental capacity, such as learning, reasoning, problem solving, and so on.

One criterion to measure intellectual functioning is an IQ test.  Generally, an IQ test score of around 70 or as high as 75 indicates a limitation in intellectual functioning.

Standardized tests can also determine limitations in adaptive behavior, which comprises three skill types:

  • Conceptual skills—language and literacy; money, time, and number concepts; and self-direction.
  • Social skills—interpersonal skills, social responsibility, self-esteem, gullibility, naïveté (i.e., wariness), social problem solving, and the ability to follow rules/obey laws and to avoid being victimized.
  • Practical skills—activities of daily living (personal care), occupational skills, healthcare, travel/transportation, schedules/routines, safety, use of money, use of the telephone.

On the basis of such many-sided evaluations, professionals can determine whether an individual has an intellectual disability and can tailor a support plan for each individual.

But in defining and assessing intellectual disability, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) stresses that professionals must take additional factors into account, such as the community environment typical of the individual’s peers and culture. Professionals should also consider linguistic diversity and cultural differences in the way people communicate, move, and behave.

Finally, assessments must also assume that limitations in individuals often coexist with strengths, and that a person’s level of life functioning will improve if appropriate personalized supports are provided over a sustained period.

For more information:

© Copyright 2013 American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD)




Funding for this program provided by the Department of Health and Human Services