An intellectual disability is a significant limitation in an individual’s cognitive functioning and daily adaptive behaviors.
Examine the challenges surrounding different types of intellectual disability
- Individuals are classified as having an intellectual disability if they score below 70 on a measure of intelligence, display deficits in adaptive functioning, have impairments in at least two areas of functioning (such as self-care or social skills), and experience the onset of one or more of these factors before age 18.
- Intellectual disabilities are categorized by their severity: mild, moderate, severe, or profound.
- The most common causes of intellectual disability are fetal alcohol syndrome and Down syndrome.
- Individuals with intellectual disabilities face both personal and external challenges in life. In addition to challenges in cognitive functioning and daily living, people with intellectual disabilities are often stigmatized and devalued by society.
- adaptive behaviors: Behaviors that are used to adjust to another type of behavior or situation; these behaviors are most often social or personal behaviors.
- advocacy: The practice of supporting someone to make their voice heard.
- intellectual disability: A broad concept encompassing various intellectual deficits, including what was formerly known as mental retardation (MR), deficits too mild to properly qualify as MR, various specific conditions such as specific learning disability, and problems acquired later in life through acquired brain injuries or neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.
An intellectual disability is a significant limitation in an individual’s cognitive functioning and daily adaptive behaviors. Disabilities can manifest themselves as limited language, impaired speech, or difficulty performing academically. For many centuries, intellectual disabilities was poorly understood, and so diagnosis and treatment were negligible; until the 2013 release of the DSM-5 (the currently accepted resource for the diagnosis of mental illness), the term “mental retardation” was still in use rather than “intellectual disability.”
Individuals are diagnosed with an intellectual disability if they score below 70 on a measure of intelligence such as the IQ test, which has a mean score of 100. The standard deviation on an IQ test is 15 points, which means that a score of 70 is two standard deviations below the mean, or in the bottom 2.2% of the population. An individual must also display deficits in adaptive functioning; have impairments in at least two areas of functioning, such as self-care, social skills, or living skills; and experience the onset of symptoms before the age of 18 in order to be diagnosed as having an intellectual disability.
Types of Intellectual Disability
Intellectual disabilities are categorized by their severity:
- Mild: Approximately 85% of individuals with an intellectual disability fit into this category. These individuals are often able to acquire sixth-grade level academic skills. They also often have the skills necessary to live independently and hold a job, but may need assistance if under unusual stress.
- Moderate: About 10% of people with intellectual disabilities fit into this category. These individuals benefit from social skills and vocational training. They can often learn to travel from place to place independently and hold an unskilled job with supervision.
- Severe: Only 3%-4% of individuals are in this category. They may be able to perform some work with supervision and can often function in a community, living in a group home or with their family.
- Profound: Approximately 1% are in this category. These individuals have fundamental mental impairments and need optimal care, which requires a structured environment with one-to-one supervision by a caregiver.
Causes of Intellectual Disability
Among the common causes of intellectual disabilities are fetal alcohol syndrome and Down syndrome; other contributing factors include certain genetic disorders and exposures to environmental toxins. In every population there is a small percentage of individuals whose intellectual disability has no known cause.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
This spectrum of disorders (FASD) is a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother ingested alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe disorder on this spectrum, and it is the leading cause of intellectual disability. This syndrome is caused when alcohol crosses the barrier of the placenta in a pregnant woman and damages the developing brain of the fetus. Alcohol exposure presents a risk of fetal brain damage at any point during a pregnancy, since brain development is ongoing throughout pregnancy. FASD is estimated to affect between 2% and 5% of people in the United States and Western Europe. FAS is believed to occur in between 0.2 and 9 per 1000 live births in the United States.
Down syndrome, also known as trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a full or partial third copy of chromosome 21. It is typically associated with physical growth delays, a particular set of facial characteristics and a severe degree of intellectual disability. Down syndrome is one of the most common chromosome abnormalities in humans, occurring in about one per 1000 babies born each year. The average full-scale IQ of young adults with Down syndrome is around 50.
Education and proper care have been shown to improve quality of life for individuals with Down Syndrome. Some children with Down syndrome are educated in typical school classes, while others require more specialized education. Some individuals with Down syndrome graduate from high school and a few go on to post-secondary education.
Challenges Caused by Intellectual Disability
Individuals living with intellectual disabilities face both personal and external challenges in life. A child with an intellectual disability may learn to sit up, crawl, walk, and talk later than other children. Individuals with intellectual disabilities may experience difficulty learning social rules, deficits in memory, difficulty with problem solving, and delays in adaptive behaviors (such as self-help or self-care skills). They may also lack social inhibitors. Everyday tasks that most people take for granted, such as getting dressed or eating a meal, may be possible, but they may also take more time and effort than usual. Health and safety can also be a concern; for example, knowing whether it is safe to cross a street could pose a problem for someone with an intellectual disability. The exact combination of challenges varies from one person to another, but it typically involves limitations in both intellectual and daily functioning.
Society itself also poses challenges. People with intellectual disabilities are often discriminated against and devalued by society. This has improved over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but many individuals with disabilities still face being stigmatized in everday life. Person-centered planning seeks to address this problem by encouraging a focus on the person with intellectual disabilities as someone with capacities and gifts as well as support needs. The self-advocacy movement promotes the right of individuals with intellectual disabilities to make decisions about their own lives.
The Intellectually Gifted
Educators face many challenges when identifying gifted students and deciding how best to educate them.
Discuss the benefits and disadvantages to creating special programs for individuals with gifted intelligence
- A child whose cognitive abilities are markedly more advanced than those of his or her peers is considered intellectually gifted.
- Gifted children often learn faster than their peers and work independently. Schools face the challenge of how to handle gifted students academically in order to keep them challenged and engaged.
- Gifted programs can be beneficial by keeping gifted children engaged in learning and providing them with opportunities to discover their full potential.
- Gifted programs can be detrimental by labeling children as either “gifted” or “not gifted,” which can in turn create a self-fulfilling prophecy where “not gifted” students do not put forth the same effort and therefore are not as successful.
- gifted: Endowed with special, in particular intellectual, abilities.
- self-fulfilling: Describing a prediction that causes itself to occur as predicted.
- intelligence quotient: A score derived from one of several different standardized tests attempting to measure intelligence.
A child whose cognitive abilities are markedly more advanced than those of his or her peers is considered intellectually gifted. At one time, giftedness was defined based solely upon an individual’s IQ ( intelligence quotient) score. Since that time, the definition for giftedness has become complex, with no consensus on a single definition. A variety of criteria are used to define giftedness, including measures of intelligence, creativity, and achievement, as well as interviews with parents and teachers. Often, the decision of how to identify gifted individuals is left up to school districts.
Benefits of Gifted Programs
Gifted children often learn faster than their peers, and work more independently. Since their academic achievement is advanced, these students may become bored in a traditional classroom setting. This can sometimes lead to behavioral problems or lack of motivation. Schools face the challenge of how to work with gifted students academically to keep them challenged and engaged.
One way schools may handle this issue is to allow a gifted child to skip grades. The advantage to this solution is that the child will be doing coursework that is appropriate to their cognitive level. The potential disadvantages, however, are substantial: younger students will experience physical development later than their grade-level peers and may experience emotional development later as well. This may lead them to feel self-conscious about being different or to be bullied by their peers.
Another solution is to keep the child in the regular classroom but provide additional assignments and an enriched curriculum. In addition to the enriched curriculum, another option might be pull-out programs where the child leaves the classroom during certain times or days for advanced classes. Finally, some school districts create entire gifted classrooms.
Gifted programs can be beneficial to the gifted child by keeping the child engaged in learning. Some programs even offer gifted children college-level credit for advanced placement classes (with a passing grade on an assessment test). These programs can provide the child with opportunities to discover his or her potential.
Disadvantages of Gifted Programs
Gifted programs can also be detrimental to children. By labeling some children as “gifted” and others as “not gifted,” schools can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where those who are not accepted into the program do not perform as well as those who are accepted. The students identified as “not gifted” may believe they are not as intelligent as those who are labeled gifted, and in turn they may not put forth the same effort at school. The Pygmalion effect is a studied phenomenon in which higher expectations lead to better performance; the golem effect is the opposite phenomenon, in which lower expectations lead to lower performance. Teachers who are told their students are gifted will treat them as though they are gifted, which can result in increased performance; teachers who are told their students are “average” may be less patient when those students struggle than they would be if they thought those students were gifted.
Another detriment to gifted programs is that students who are not identified as gifted are denied the benefits of enriched education. Gifted programs vary widely in what they offer, but some involve activities like field trips, talks from scholars, or cultural experiences, like visits to museums. These enrichment activities would benefit all children, not just the gifted.