Intellectual Disability

The following is an excerpt from the ebooklet Working with children with an intellectual disability by Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim.

Approximately 2 per cent of all children have an intellectual disability. There are varying degrees of intellectual disability ranging from mild to profound, with the majority of children being in the mild range. This ebooklet is tailored primarily to working with children who have an intellectual disability in the mild to moderate range.

Children with an intellectual disability develop cognitively and learn at a significantly slower rate and to a lower level than other children their age.

These children have significant deficits in their cognitive skills—that is, their ability to think and reason, as well as their skills of independence, socialisation and language, compared with other children their age.

For example, by the end of their formal schooling, older adolescents with a mild intellectual disability may only acquire academic and social skills similar to that of Year 6 or Year 7 children while those with a moderate intellectual disability may only acquire academic and social skills similar to that of Year 2 or Year 3 children. An intellectual disability has significant lifelong implications for these children and their parents.

How are children diagnosed with an intellectual disability?

A psychologist diagnoses children with an intellectual disability. The psychologist will administer standardised tests of both intelligence and adaptive behaviour. Adaptive behaviour refers to the skills required to operate effectively, safely, and independently in daily living. The outcomes of these assessments are examined in relation to children’s same-aged peers.

To be diagnosed with an intellectual disability, children must have the following:

  • significantly below-average intelligence. This is measured using a standardised intelligence test. The child’s intelligence quotient (IQ) will generally score at 70 or below
  • significant difficulties in at least two areas of adaptive behaviour including communication, social skills, and skills required for independence in daily living. These difficulties are measured using a test of adaptive behaviour
  • a history of developmental difficulties or delay and diagnosed before age 18.

Children with a mild intellectual disability (IQ 50/55 to 70) may not be identified or diagnosed until they begin school or, in some cases, several years later. Teachers of children in the lower years of schooling play a large part in referring children who are not learning at the rate of their peers for an assessment with a psychologist. All referrals must involve parent consent.

Children with an intellectual disability may exhibit some of the following characteristics at school

Thinking and reasoning skills
  • Thinking and processing information and learning occurs at a slower rate and to a lower level than other students.
  • Specific difficulty with:
    • abstract reasoning tasks and thinking
    • cause-and-effect relationships
    • categorising
    • generalising and applying what they learn into different situations and contexts.
Speech and language skills
  • Sentences and vocabulary are less complex than peers.
  • Use of language is very concrete.
  • Difficulty with understanding and following complex instructions.
  • Lacking confidence and competence speaking in front of the class.
Academic skills
  • Academic progress is significantly behind their peers and the ‘gap’ widens with age.
  • Progress may be stronger in academic areas that do not require understanding of higher level reasoning and difficult concepts.
  • Difficulty with learning and applying basic skills such as punctuation, spelling and times tables.
Attention and task completion
  • Short attention span.
  • Difficulty with most tasks, including:
    • initiating or beginning a task
    • staying on task
    • organising information and completing set tasks.
Behaviour and emotional issues
  • Many children with an intellectual disability are passive and gentle; however some can be aggressive and impulsive.
  • Children with intellectual disability are ‘at risk’ of misbehaving and having emotional outbursts which typically stem from frustration about not being able to do something or from a lack of understanding about what is required of them. This can lead to:
    • low self-confidence and self-efficacy
    • anxiety or worry
    • depression or sadness
    • withdrawn behaviours
    • aggression
    • rule-breaking behaviour.
Social skills

Children with an intellectual disability tend to have poorly developed social skills and difficulty in understanding things from another person’s perspective. As a consequence, they may have difficulty:

  • making and maintaining friends
  • understanding social cues and rules
  • dealing with large groups of unfamiliar people.

Co-existence with other disorders

Intellectual disability can co-exist with other mental health and medical disorders. Some children with an intellectual disability also have a diagnosis of one or more of the following: ADHD, mood disorders, anxiety, or pervasive developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. Some children may have an intellectual disability due to genetic disorders such as Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome. It is critical that these children are assisted throughout their schooling and beyond through appropriate interventions and management so that self-regulation and optimum learning takes place and to help minimise odd behaviour, poor routines or maladaptive mannerisms. Children with an intellectual disability are more at risk of anxiety and depression than typically developing children. These co-existing conditions can persist into adolescence and adulthood without effective support and intervention.

It is important to remember that children with an intellectual disability can present with a broad range of challenges. This does not mean that they cannot learn. These children will be slow learners in many areas throughout their life, but their ability to function independently at school and in society will generally improve if given the appropriate support, supervision and positive reinforcement.

Strategies to support the child with an intellectual disability

Modify the curriculum

  • Give extra time to complete tasks and tests.
  • Provide concrete aids, digital objects and manipulatives, drawings, diagrams and mathematical tools to support new learning or the completion of the task.
  • Assign a smaller workload. For example you may ask the child to write several sentences or a paragraph rather than a whole page of text or assign them less questions to complete from a workbook.
  • Break tasks into manageable chunks. Children with an intellectual disability may have difficulty remembering and completing all the components of a large task. Break the task into smaller steps to make it more manageable. For example, when asking the class to write a recount, ask them to first draw and write from a recent experience, and then make notes about the people and the events from this experience. They can use these steps to help them to construct a rough draft (broken into introduction, one or two events or incidents that occurred, and a conclusion). A final draft might add more details and the teacher, aide or assistant might assist with revisions and editing to produce a final copy. It may be helpful to give the child one step to complete at a time, or provide them with a visual reminder of each step required. It may be helpful to set time limits for each section and provide reminders to the class of how much time they have left. For example, ‘You have 10 minutes left … 5 minutes … 2 minutes’ and so on. The child may also need one-to-one support and verbal prompting to stay on task.


Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2011

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