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- Intellectual Disabilities -

What is an intellectual disability?

Intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, problem-solving) and in adaptive behavior, which covers a range of everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18.

What causes an intellectual disability?


Intellectual disability affects about 1% to 3% of the population. There are many causes of intellectual disability, but doctors find a specific reason in only 25% of cases.

Risk factors are related to the causes. Causes of intellectual disability can include:

  • Infections (present at birth or occurring after birth)

  • Chromosomal abnormalities (such as Down syndrome)

  • Environmental

  • Metabolic (such as hyperbilirubinemia, or very high bilirubin levels in babies)

  • Nutritional (such as malnutrition)

  • Toxic (intrauterine exposure to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, and other drugs)

  • Trauma (before and after birth)

  • Unexplained (doctors do not know the reason for the person's intellectual disability)

How are intellectual disabilities treated?


There is no cure for intellectual disability, but services and supports play an important role and can enable the person to thrive throughout their lifetime. Services for people with intellectual disability and their families are primarily there to provide adequate support to allow for full inclusion in their communities.


These services touch their daily lives (education, justice, housing, recreational, employment, health care, etc.) and may include:

  • Case management (a case manager helps the person apply for Medicaid in order to get a variety of supports including daily living needs, health care, and long term care services and supports)

  • Family support (for example, respite care)

  • Vocational programs

  • Day programs

  • Residential options

  • Early intervention

  • Special education

  • Transition services

Supports include the resources and individual strategies necessary to promote the development, education, interests, and well-being of a person.  Supports can come from family, friends, and community or from a service system.  Job coaching is an example of support provided by a service system.  Supports can also be provided by a parent, sibling, friend, teacher or any other person, such as a co-worker who provides a little extra support to someone on the job. Supports are provided in many settings, and a “setting” or location by itself is not a support.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Down Syndrome

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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

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Shaken Baby Syndrome

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