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Promoting Inclusivity & Awareness: Understanding Intellectual Disability Types

Raising awareness about intellectual disabilities is the first step in creating a more inclusive space at home, in the classroom, in the workplace, and in our general communities. 

Intellectual disability is a broad topic that is impacted by misconceptions and is seen as a barrier for countless children and adults even though millions of people are affected, including celebrities

This blog aims to bring greater understanding to the world of intellectual disabilities and help people navigate life more easily and most importantly, equally.

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What is an Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual disabilities refer to limited cognitive functioning and skills, which encompasses social, language, conceptual, and self-care capabilities. 

The result of these limited skills is that a child or adult develops and learns more slowly about other people. 

In most instances, an intellectual disability presents before the age of 20 and in some cases, can be picked up before birth. 

The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities identifies someone as having an intellectual disability if they:

  • Have an IQ lower than 70.
  • Are diagnosed before the age of 22.
  • Are showing limited functionality and skills in the areas of conceptualization, socialization, and practical life skills. 

Intellectual Disability Statistics

Intellectual Disability Statistics

Organizations such as the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all conducted studies in the intellectual disabilities space.

Here is what they found:

  • Roughly 6.5 million people in the United States alone are living with some form of intellectual disability.
  • Around 1 to 3 percent of the global population is affected by an intellectual disability.
  • Intellectual disability rates are higher in low-income countries, with almost 17 in every 1,000 people being affected. 
  • Approximately 85% of people with an intellectual disability are only mildly impacted, with 6 per 1,000 people having a more severe disability. 

What Causes Intellectual Disability?

There are several reasons why someone might be born with or develop an intellectual disability, including:

Abnormal genes are one of the first causes of intellectual disabilities. These genes can either be inherited or an error occurs when genes combine in the womb. 

There are certain diseases and infections such as meningitis and whooping cough that have been linked to intellectual disabilities. Malnutrition, poor medical care, and exposure to poisons can also impact mental capabilities and life skills.

A child that is exposed to drugs and alcohol in the womb has a high chance of developing intellectual disabilities. Premature birth and oxygen deprivation during the birthing process can have an effect too. Adults that experience a traumatic brain injury or extreme malnutrition are also at risk later in life.

A Look at Intellectual Disability Symptoms

The signs and symptoms associated with intellectual disabilities can vary from person to person. There’s also a chance that they only present later in life once a child reaches school age.

Here are some of the most common symptoms associated with an intellectual impairment:

  • Rolling over, sitting, crawling, and walking later than expected.
  • An IQ score of 70 or below, with an IQ of 34 or less indicating a severe intellectual disability. 
  • Difficulty learning and developing at a rate that’s slower than other children. 
  • Trouble talking or learning to talk later in life.
  • Difficulty communicating and socializing. 
  • Memory problems.
  • Trouble with logical thinking and problem-solving.
  • Connecting actions to consequences is a difficult skill to comprehend. 
  • Basic tasks such as using the bathroom and getting dressed are not easy. 

For children and adults with more severe intellectual disabilities, the above symptoms could be paired with hearing and vision problems, frequent illness, and seizures. 

Understanding the Different Intellectual Disability Types

Understanding the Different Intellectual Disability Types

Next, let’s look at some of the most common types of intellectual disabilities.

Developmental Delays

Children who develop at a slower rate than other kids of the same age may have a developmental delay. Areas that might be affected include movement, interactions with others, and the ability to learn, understand, and communicate. 

The good news is that some developmental delays can improve over time, but for other children, it can become more significant. 

Down’s Syndrome

Down’s Syndrome is the result of a part or an extra copy of chromosome 21 being present in a child’s DNA. This common chromosomal abnormality can result in mild to moderate intellectual disabilities. 

Children with Down’s Syndrome will reach key development milestones much later in life and will often struggle with delayed language skills, short attention spans, impulsive behavior, and slow learning. 

Poor muscle tone is another effect of this genetic abnormality, which means, walking, standing, and sitting will also happen much later than other children of the same age. A small head, flattened nose, and slanting eyes are some of the more common physical characteristics of this condition. 

Thanks to developments in research and technology, people with Down’s Syndrome now have an extended lifespan. 

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

When a child is exposed to excessive amounts of alcohol in the womb, it can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, which is linked to intellectual disabilities. The level of alcohol a child is exposed to will determine how severe the disability is. 

Children with fetal alcohol syndrome are prone to facial, limb, and joint deformities. They will also struggle with memory, judgment, socializing, and learning. Heart, hearing, and visual health concerns are other common side effects. 

Fragile X Syndrome

This is one of the most prevalent types of intellectual disabilities that is inherited. Fragile X Syndrome is caused by a change or mutation in the X chromosome, which impacts learning and behavior. It’s also not uncommon for someone’s physical appearance and sensitivity to noise and light to be impacted too. 

Boys tend to be affected more than girls and even though symptoms will look different in every child, some of the most common signs include problems with speech, attention, anxiety, and aggression. 

Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS)

Problems with a part of chromosome 15 are what causes PWS and it can usually be identified soon after birth. For one, infants with PWS will have trouble feeding, however, from the age of two, parents may have trouble keeping up with their appetites. The result of this insatiable appetite is often diabetes and obesity. 

Some of the signs of PWS include poor muscle tone, language and math difficulties, skin picking, hormonal deficiencies, sleep issues, and emotional difficulties. By intervening at an early age, it’s easier for parents to manage the symptoms, especially in the area of intellectual capabilities. 

Technology That Can Assist People with Intellectual Disabilities

Technology is playing a leading role in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, helping them feel more comfortable and at ease in their worlds.

Here are a few examples of the technology that can aid those with intellectual impairments:

Augmentative and alternative communication apps make it easier for the intellectually disabled to express themselves and communicate. These apps rely on pictures and symbols and have text-to-speech capabilities to facilitate communication. SoundingBoard and Card Talk are two popular options. 

For people with mild visual or learning impairments that are linked to an intellectual disability, there are screen readers, which read text out loud to users directly from their chosen device.

Visual task management tools are another way that individuals with intellectual disabilities can better understand and manage their daily activities. This is achieved with visual cues and clear step-by-step instructions. Stepping Stones and Remember the Milk are great options. 

VR technology can help immerse someone in a real-life simulation, giving them the opportunity to learn and practice day-to-day skills that will serve them in the real world. 

These apps are built with exercises and games that help people improve their memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. Otsimo and Special Words are two examples of apps like this. 

Today, there are countless apps and digital platforms that have been designed to cater to people with different learning styles and capabilities, offering equal access to quality education. Bookshare and Learning Ally are ideal for accessing eBooks and other forms of accessible content.  

Calming devices and tactile feedback tools can help people with intellectual disabilities feel calmer and better manage periods of sensory overload. 

For individuals who have problems in social situations, there are apps available that mimic real-life scenarios, helping them improve their social skills and ability to recognize emotions. Avokiddo Emotions, Toca Tea Party, and Table Topics are some examples. 

To make life that much easier, smart home technology such as voice-activated assistants and smart switches are often used by those with intellectual disabilities. 

In Closing

Intellectual disabilities might come with their battles, but they are certainly not a barrier to leading a healthy, inclusive life, especially with the right tools, guidance, and support from the people around you and your community. 


Anyone with an IQ level of 70 or less is deemed to have an intellectual disability. IQ levels of 35 – 49 indicate a moderate disability, 20 – 34 indicates a severe disability, and anything less than 20 is considered profound. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, ADHD is more a developmental disability than an intellectual one. ADHD is only deemed to be a protected disability when it interferes with a person’s ability to work and participate in society. 

Whether or not autism is considered an intellectual disability is mainly dependent on a person’s IQ level. Anything above 70 is still an acceptable IQ level and is not seen as an intellectual disability.

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