What is intellectual disability?
Intellectual disability is a brain problem that results in lower than normal intelligence. It can happen as your baby's brain develops in your womb. The disability can be mild or more severe, but people with intellectual disability usually need some help carrying out daily activities and caring for themselves.
Children with intellectual disability may have physical differences, such as unusual facial features
Most children start to show symptoms in preschool—they are usually slower to speak and use sentences
Treatment includes different kinds of therapy and special education
To lower the chance of your baby having intellectual disability:
Take folate (folic acid) before conception and in early pregnancy
Avoid alcohol during pregnancy
Get good health care while you're pregnant
What causes intellectual disability?
Intellectual disability has many causes. Most of the time, something happens that affects your baby's developing brain before birth. This can include:
Certain kinds of infection during pregnancy
Severe poor nutrition during pregnancy
Use of alcohol, certain drugs, or certain medicine during pregnancy
Sometimes, intellectual disability happens because of problems during birth, such as:
Not enough oxygen during birth
Being born very prematurely
Sometimes, intellectual disability develops after birth. Causes include:
Emotional abuse and neglect
What are the symptoms of intellectual disability?
Some children show differences at birth or shortly after birth, such as:
Unusual facial features or a head that’s unusually large or small
Unusually shaped hands or feet
Sometimes children may have signs of a health problem, such as:
Urine that has an unusual odor or smells
Failure to eat and grow normally
Delays in learning to roll over, sit up, and stand
You may not notice symptoms until your child starts school and you see your child in comparison to other children the same age. Your child may have:
Language problems, such as a later start using words or speaking in full sentences
Trouble making friends and other social skills
Trouble dressing and doing other self-care tasks
Sometimes, behavior problems such as temper tantrums or aggression, especially if frustrated
In older children, being gullible and letting other children take advantage
Sometimes, a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression, especially if the child gets picked on or is aware of being different
How can doctors tell if my child has intellectual disability?
As part of your child's regular checkups, doctors will ask questions to check that your child is developing as expected. If doctors suspect an intellectual disability, they’ll send your child for:
Tests of speaking, social, and motor skills
If your child has intellectual disability, doctors will try to find out what's causing it. Doctors may do:
Urine and blood tests
Imaging tests of the brain, such as MRI Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) MRI is a test that uses a machine with a powerful magnet to make pictures of the inside of your body. A computer records changes in the magnetic field around your body. The computer then uses... read more and EEG Electroencephalography (EEG) Brain waves are electrical signals your brain makes. Your brain is always making electrical signals, even when you're asleep. Certain brain problems such as seizures cause changes in your brain... read more
How do doctors treat intellectual disability?
Treatment is based on your child's needs and strengths. Children may work with a team of health and school professionals, including:
Primary care doctor (such as a pediatrician)
Social workers and psychologists for counseling
Speech, occupational, and physical therapists to help them learn to do daily activities
Specialty doctors for brain and nerve problems
Nutritionists to help with healthy eating
Special education teachers
In the United States, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to test children for intellectual disability. It also requires schools to provide free and appropriate education to children with intellectual disability.