Intellectual disability

Intellectual disability

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About intellectual disability

Children with intellectual disability learn at a slower rate than others. They can have difficulty with memory and problem-solving, as well as developmental delays early in life.

Intellectual disability varies a lot from child to child. It can range from mild to severe.

There's a big range of normal when it comes to children's learning and development. But you know your child best. If you're worried that your child is slower to learn and think than other children the same age, trust your instincts. It's a good idea to talk with your GP.

Diagnosis of intellectual disability

A diagnosis of intellectual disability involves formal testing with an IQ test. Paediatricians or psychologists can organise these tests.

Once your child has been diagnosed with intellectual disability, your health professional might recommend further tests, including genetic tests, to work out what has caused the disability.

In general, the milder the intellectual disability, the later it's diagnosed.

Living with intellectual disability

Children with intellectual disability can learn and keep learning, just like other children. And like all children, they get a lot out of being part of the community and doing activities that make them feel good about themselves.

Some children with intellectual disability can go to regular school with assistance. Others might benefit from special education. Primary school choices are up to you as a parent, taking into account what will best suit your child's needs and your family's circumstances.

And with family and community support, your child with intellectual disability can grow up to be just like anyone else - living in the community, holding down a job and having good relationships with friends and family.

Many adults with mild intellectual disability live independent lives.

If your child has intellectual disability, it's easy to get caught up in supporting his needs. But it's important to look after your own wellbeing and get support for yourself too. If you're physically and mentally well, you'll be better able to care for your child.

Support and treatment for children with intellectual disability

Although there's no cure for intellectual disability, early intervention can make a difference - the earlier the better. Through early intervention services, you can work with health professionals to help your child reach her full potential.

If your child has intellectual disability, you and your child might work with some or all of the following professionals:

  • child and family health nurse
  • genetic counsellor
  • GP
  • occupational therapist
  • paediatrician
  • psychologist
  • social worker
  • special education teacher
  • speech pathologist.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) might support your child with intellectual disability, as well as you and your family. Our guide has answers to your questions about the NDIS.

Causes of intellectual disability

Most intellectual disabilities are caused by genetic factors. For example, intellectual disability can happen when a child:

  • has altered chromosomes, as in Down syndrome
  • has an altered gene, as in Fragile X syndrome.

Sometimes intellectual disability is caused by other factors. For example, intellectual disability can happen if a child:

  • is born prematurely
  • has a brain injury
  • is severely malnourished
  • gets certain types of infections in infancy or childhood
  • is exposed to alcohol or other drugs during pregnancy
  • is exposed to toxins like lead during pregnancy and in childhood.

But for some children, especially those with mild intellectual disability, no cause is found.

In the past intellectual disability was called mental retardation in the US. It's also called learning disability in the UK. You might see these terms in some publications or websites.


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