About intellectual disability

Children with intellectual disability often learn at a slower rate than others. They can have problems with memory, thinking and learning.

The degree of intellectual disability varies a lot from child to child.

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

Causes of intellectual disability

Sometimes things happen before a child is born to cause intellectual disability. And sometimes intellectual disability is caused in early childhood.

For example, intellectual disability can happen when a child:

  • has abnormal chromosomes
  • is born prematurely
  • is severely malnourished
  • has a brain injury or structural problems with the brain
  • gets certain types of infections in infancy or childhood.

Intellectual disability can be caused by drug and alcohol use by a child’s mother during pregnancy.  It can also be caused by exposure to poisons such as lead during pregnancy.

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

Diagnosis of intellectual disability

A diagnosis of intellectual disability involves formal testing. This can be done by a psychologist.

In general, the milder the disability, the later it is diagnosed.

Living with intellectual disability

Children with intellectual disability feel a full range of emotions 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. This is a decision that you make as a parent, taking into account what will best suit your child’s needs and your family’s circumstances.

Many adults with a mild intellectual disability live independent lives.

Support and treatment for children with intellectual disability

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

Find out more about services, government support, family life, education and disability rights in our section on raising children with disability.