What is intellectual disability?

Intellectual disability is a disability characterised by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behaviour, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18.

Intellectual Functioning

Intellectual functioning—also called intelligence—refers to general mental capacity, such as learning, reasoning, problem solving, and so on.

One way to measure intellectual functioning is an IQ test. Generally, an IQ test score of around 70 or as high as 75 indicates a limitation in intellectual functioning.

Adaptive Behaviour

Adaptive behaviour is the collection of conceptual, social, and practical skills that are learned and performed by people in their everyday lives.

  • Conceptual skills—language and literacy; money, time, and number concepts; and self-direction.
  • Social skills—interpersonal skills, social responsibility, self-esteem, gullibility, naïveté (i.e., wariness), social problem solving, and the ability to follow rules/obey laws and to avoid being victimised.
  • Practical skills—activities of daily living (personal care), occupational skills, healthcare, travel/transportation, schedules/routines, safety, use of money, use of the telephone.

Standardised tests can also determine limitations in adaptive behaviour.

Age of Onset

This condition is one of several developmental disabilities—that is, there is evidence of the disability during the developmental period, which in the US is operationalised as before the age of 18.

Additional Considerations

But in defining and assessing intellectual disability, the AAIDD stresses that additional factors must be taken into account, such as the community environment typical of the individual’s peers and culture. Professionals should also consider linguistic diversity and cultural differences in the way people communicate, move, and behave.

Finally, assessments must also assume that limitations in individuals often coexist with strengths, and that a person’s level of life functioning will improve if appropriate personalised supports are provided over a sustained period.

Only on the basis of such many-sided evaluations can professionals determine whether an individual has intellectual disability and tailor individualised support plans.

Source: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD)