Most forms of an intellectual disability (formerly called mental retardation) are recognized early in a child’s life, as the child fails to achieve standard developmental milestones at appropriate ages. However, at early ages, developmental delays do not necessarily predict that intellectual disabilities will be present when a child reaches school age.
A given child’s predicted abilities (IQ) can start to be measured in school-aged children. Whereas an average IQ is around 100, intellectual disabilities are diagnosed in the 2% to 3% of children who score the lowest on a standard IQ test and are delayed to the same extent in such life skills as self-care, self-direction, and the use of academic skills. Eighty-five percent of children with intellectual disability fall into the mild range, with IQ scores from 70 to 55.
Intellectual disabilities are often suspected within the first few years of life if children are experiencing lags in the rate of their development in social, self-help, motor skills, and language development. Children with milder forms of intellectual disability may escape detection until their school years, when parents or teachers begin to wonder if their difficulties in learning signal the presence of ADHD or learning disabilities and bring them to a pediatrician for evaluation.
In the past, physicians did not believe that ADHD occurred in children with intellectual disabilities. As a result, treatments for ADHD, including stimulant medications, were rarely used to treat children who actually had ADHD and coexisting intellectual disabilities. But recent research reveals that as many as 25% to 40% of children with intellectual disability also have ADHD—significantly more than in the general population.
Treatment for children with intellectual disability includes family support; family education and counseling; special educational programs; paying attention to transitional needs and educational rights; identifying community supports and support groups (such as The Arc); and paying close attention to your child’s strengths, abilities, and self-esteem.