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Children with Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual Disability (ID) (formerly called mental retardation) is the most common developmental disability–nearly 6.5 million people in the United States have some level of ID. (more than 545,000 are ages 6-21).

What is an "Intellectual Disability"?

Children with IDs have significant difficulties in both intellectual functioning (e.g. communicating, learning, problem solving) and adaptive behavior (e.g.  everyday social skills, routines, hygiene).  

IDs can be mild or more severe. Children with more severe forms typically require more support–particularly in school. Children with milder IDs can gain some independent skills, especially in communities with good teaching and support. There are many programs and resources available to help these children as they grow into adulthood.

Why do some people still use the term "mental retardation"?

With the passage of Rosa's Law in 2010, many states replaced all terminology from "mental retardation" to "intellectual disability." Unfortunately, it has taken time for people to use the new term.

The general public, including families, and public policymakers at local, state and federal levels, are becoming aware of how offensive this term is. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not encourage the use of nor promote the term "mental retardation."

What Causes an Intellectual Disability?

ID can start any time before a child reaches age 18. It can be caused by injury, disease, or a problem in the brain. These causes can happen before a child is born or during childhood. For many children, the cause of their ID is not known.

Common known causes of Intellectual Disabilities:

  • Genetic conditions. Examples of genetic conditions are Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and phenylketonuria (PKU).
  • Problems during pregnancy. A woman who drinks alcohol or gets an infection like rubella during pregnancy may also have a baby with ID.
  • Problems at birth. If a baby has problems during labor and birth, such as not getting enough oxygen, he may have ID.
  • Health problems. Diseases like whooping cough, measles, or meningitis can cause ID. Other causes include extreme malnutrition, not getting enough medical care, or by exposure to poisons like lead or mercury.

How Do I Know If My Child Has an Intellectual Disability?

To help your child reach her full potential, it is very important to get help as early as possible. Talk with your child's doctor if you think there could be a problem. You may be referred to a developmental-behavioral pediatrician or other pediatric specialist for further evaluation and screening.

There are many signs of an Intellectual Disability. For example, children may:

  • Sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children
  • Learn to talk later or have trouble speaking
  • Have trouble understanding social rules
  • Have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions
  • Have trouble solving problems
  • Have trouble thinking logically

About developmental delays:

Your doctor might initially say your child has developmental delay. Later, your child may be diagnosed with ID. Even though all children with ID show signs of a developmental delay early in life, not all children with a developmental delay end up having ID. Sometimes, a mild ID may not be recognized until a child starts school and struggles to learn at the same pace as his peers.

How are Intellectual Disabilities Diagnosed?

A child has to have both a significantly low IQ and considerable problems in everyday functioning to be diagnosed with ID.

About the IQ test:

IQ ("Intelligence Quotient") measures a child's learning and problem solving skills. A normal IQ score is around 100. Children with ID have a low IQ score–most score between 70 and 55 or lower.

Usually, children are not able to do an intelligence test (Intelligence Quotient Test or IQ test) until they are 4 to 6 years old. Therefore, parents may have to wait until a child reaches that age before knowing for sure if their child has ID. Sometimes, it can take longer.

About adaptive behavior:

As previously mentioned, a child must also have considerable problems in everyday functioning to be diagnosed with ID. To measure adaptive behavior, doctors and other evaluators look at what a child can do in comparison to other children the same age. Examples include:

  • Personal care skills (e.g. getting dressed, going to the bathroom, self-feeding)
  • Communication and social skills (e.g. having conversations, using the phone) 
  • School or work skills
  • Learning routines
  • Being safe
  • Asking for help
  • Using money

Most children with IDs can learn a great deal, and as adults can lead at least partially independent lives.

What is the Treatment for an Intellectual Disability?

ID is not a disease and you cannot catch it from anyone. It is also not a type of mental illness, like depression. There is no cure for IDs, however most children can learn to do many things. It just takes them more time and effort.  

Support resources:

Many families have a child with ID. One way to find a family support agency in your state is by going to Family Voices and clicking on the state map or calling them toll free at 888-835-5669.  ​

Every state also has a Parent Information Center (PIC) to help families with their child's special education needs.

What are Common, Coexisting Conditions in Children with Intellectual Disabilities?  

Children with severe IDs are more likely to have additional disabilities and/or disorders compared to children with milder IDs.

Examples of associated physical disabilities:

Examples of associated emotional and behavioral disorders: 

Your child's doctor or local developmental service agency can help you to get to those supports or services in your area.

Additional Information:

Last Updated
Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (SODBP) (Copyright © 2015 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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