What is an intellectual disability?

An intellectual disability involves an impairment in general mental abilities. A person with an intellectual disability has an IQ that falls below a score of 70. This is two standard deviations below a normal IQ score of 100. It is also marked by a disruption in functioning in three areas:

  1. Conceptually: a person may display impairments in language, reading, writing, math, reasoning, knowledge and memory.
  2. Socially: a person may display impairments in empathy, social judgement, interpersonal communication skills, the ability to make and retain friendships.
  3. Practically: this encompasses self-management and the ability to manage personal care, keep a job, money management, recreation and school activities.

Often intellectual disabilities co-occur with other psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).


So, what does this mean?

 As we know no two people are the same. This is the same with an intellectual disability. The way an intellectual disability impacts a person will vary by the person. It is important to note that a person with an intellect disability will struggle with the three areas listed above. So, there will be some difficulties conceptually. The person may struggle reading, writing or expressing themselves with language. However, how this impacts a person will range from person to person. Additionally, there will be some issues socially. Again, how this can be displayed will vary but making connections can be very difficult. Last, intellectual disabilities impact practical knowledge so this is where there can be difficulties in independence. Which means there can be issues with money spending, personal hygiene and getting and keeping jobs.


How can I be supportive?

 First, remember that no two people are the same. We can never assume we know how another person operates or how exactly their disability may impact them. So, before we are inclined to say, “they know better” we need to remember that we do not know how their disability may impact them. Having boundaries and mutual respect is essential however, keep in mind that someone who may have a lot of language skills could have less skills in another arena. Be supportive and understanding.

Second, don’t take actions personally. We are all human and it can be easy to feel hurt or targeted when behaviors happen. Very rarely are these behaviors at all personally motivated. Take a step back and remember that is not about you. There will be some difficulties in social situations which can lead to behaviors. But remember, that this has nothing do with you. Remembering this, your support and understanding can make a huge difference in the life of a person with an Intellectual Disability.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.