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Resource Page for Characteristics and Outcomes of Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual Disabilities: 3 Vignettes:

Common Characteristics of Intellectual Disabilities
There are many signs of intellectual disability. For example, individuals with an intellectual
disability may:
• have trouble speaking,
• find it hard to remember things,
• not understand how things work,
• have trouble understanding social rules,
• have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions,
• have trouble solving problems, and/or
• have trouble thinking logically.

About 87% of people with intellectual disability will only be a little slower than average in
learning new information and skills. When they are children, their limitations may not be
obvious. They may not even be diagnosed as having intellectual disabilityuntil they get to
school. As they become adults, many people with intellectual disability can live independently.
Other people may not even consider them as having an intellectual disability.

The remaining 13% of people with intellectual disability score below 50 on IQ tests. These
people will have more difficulty in school, at home, and in the community. A person with more
severe intellectual disability will need more intensive support his or her entire life. Every child
with intellectual disability is able to learn, develop, and grow. With help, all children with
intellectual disability can live a satisfying life.

Common Traits of People with Intellectual Disabilities
• May not communicate at age level:

o Limited vocabulary
o Difficulty understanding/answering questions
o Mimics answers/responses
o Unable to communicate events clearly in his/her own words
o Unable to understand complicated instructions or abstract concepts

• May not understand consequences of situations
o Unaware of seriousness of situations
o Easily led or persuaded by others
o Naïve eagerness to confess or please authority figures

• May not behave appropriately:

o Unaware of social norms and appropriate social behavior
o Acts younger than actual age, may display childlike behavior
o Displays low frustration tolerance and/or poor impulse control
o May “act out”, become emotional, or try to leave if under pressure

• May have difficulty performing tasks
o Difficulty with reading and/or writing
o Difficulty with telling time
o Difficulty staying focused and easily distracted
o Awkward/poor motor coordination

• May be unable to move from abstract to concrete thought.
o Most people can move from concrete to abstract thinking without effort. For

people with an intellectual disability, this is often difficult, if not impossible. If a
word has both a concrete and an abstract meaning, the person will say “yes”

Intellectual Disabilities (ID): Typical Characteristics

(Please note that these are generalizations. There is a great deal of individual variation)

Individuals with mild ID (formerly referred to as “educable” mental retardation):

• are likely to need only intermittent to limited support;
• typically do not “look” different from their non-disabled peers;
• often have only mild or moderate developmental delays, except in academics, which is often the

major area of deficit;
• therefore, they are often not identified until they enter the school setting, where their cognitive

disability is most apparent;
• typically, students with mild ID spend most of the school day in the regular classroom;
• they typically attain 3rd- to 6th-grade academic achievement levels by the time they finish high

• as adults, many, though not all, with mild ID will be able to obtain independent employment;
• many will marry, have children, and blend rather indistinguishably into the community; for those

who achieve total independence, the label of ID is no longer appropriate.

Individuals with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities (formerly called “trainable” mental

• will probably need limited to extensive supports;
• they are more likely to have a recognizable syndrome (such as Down Syndrome);
• therefore, may “look” different than their non-disabled peers;
• their development is often significantly delayed;
• they are typically identified as infants or toddlers;
• most begin receiving special education during the preschool years;
• they may be included in the regular classroom part of the school day;
• but often spend much of the school day in a separate classroom where they learn adaptive living

• as adults, most individuals with moderate to severe ID will not achieve total independence;
• rather, they are likely to continue to need limited to extensive support such as that provided in

group homes or semi-independent living situations (SILs); some may continue to live with their

• some individuals with moderate to severe ID may be able to succeed in modified competitive
employment situations;

• however, many will work in supported, non-competitive settings such as sheltered workshops.

Individuals with profound ID:

• will generally need services at the pervasive level, typically throughout their life;
• they are likely to have multiple disabilities, particularly in the areas of mobility and communication;
• therefore, many use wheelchairs and alternate forms of communication;
• their communication deficits make it difficult to accurately assess their intellectual functioning;
• in educational settings, they may be placed along with students with moderate to severe ID or in

their own classroom;

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