Intellectual disability: degrees, characteristics and available treatments

Intellectual disability has received various names over time. Is about a neurodevelopmental disorder manifested by below-average cognitive functioning. In addition, it implies difficulties in other areas such as sociability and the ability to function in the environment.

Intellectual disability can present with a very variable severity. For the same, what determines the true impact on the person's life are their difficulties in carrying out basic adaptive skills such as, for example, reading, writing, socializing, taking care of herself or organizing on a day-to-day basis.

How is a person's intellectual capacity measured?

Deviations below the mean (IQ of 100) indicate the presence of an intellectual disability.

Usually, intellectual ability is measured through standardized tests such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale (WISC-V). These offer a figure that indicates the person's IQ; that is, the difference between your mental age and your chronological age.

The population mean is estimated to be around 100, so two standard deviations below the mean (IQ 70 or lower) indicate intellectual disability.

However, although intellectual disability is present from birth or early childhood, many children do not show obvious symptoms until preschool age. Thus, Prenatal screening and developmental screening tests routinely performed by pediatricians contribute to an early diagnosis.

Related symptoms

In addition to the IQ, there are other symptoms that characterize intellectual disability. These are the signs that can alert you that child development is not progressing adequately:

  • Difficulties in reaching major development milestones. For example, it may take longer than other children to be able to sit up, crawl, or walk.
  • Delays in language acquisition and in the capacity of verbal expression.
  • Memory problems.
  • Inability to perceive the consequences of their actions.
  • Learning difficulties, logical thinking and problem solving.
  • Complications in understanding social rules and interact with others.
  • Inability to function fully autonomously In day to day.

Find out more: How to identify if your child has psychomotor retardation

Main causes

There are many possible causes for intellectual disability, but only 25% of cases can find an exact origin. Among the main factors are chromosomal abnormalities (eg, Down syndrome) and inherited disorders.

Problems during pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia or maternal alcohol or drug use, they can also influence. Similarly, infections, maternal or infant malnutrition, severe head injuries, or severe emotional neglect of the baby can increase the risk.

Keep reading: Down syndrome: what is it?

Degrees of disability

As we have commented, the manifestations of intellectual disability can present in highly variable degrees. A) Yes, Depending on the IQ and the autonomy of the person, four types of intellectual disability have been established:


Most people with intellectual disabilities are in this range and, therefore, have some IQ scores between 50 and 70.

Their cognitive and learning abilities are somewhat retarded, but they usually manage to adapt to the educational system and carry out a professional activity. Their social skills are usually relatively adequate and they only need occasional help to function.


With an IQ between 35 and 50, these people have greater cognitive difficulties, especially in the processing of complex concepts. They can train their skills and do low-skilled jobs under supervision.

In the same way, they are capable of establishing social relationships, although their communication is not very complex. And they can even move independently through familiar places and participate in social life with help.


With an IQ between 20 and 35, people with severe intellectual disabilities often require constant supervision and support. Language acquisition is delayed and limited.

They can learn to read certain words and understand simple social communication, and they can also perform simple tasks with help and vigilance. However, their degree of autonomy is very low.


Profound intellectual disability covers only 1-2% of cases. This people often have severe cognitive, social, and practical difficulties, as well as other associated disabilities. However, they do enjoy relationships with people they know and can have some involvement in everyday life as long as they have a high level of support.

Available treatments

The specialists will create a tailored plan to help the person with a disability reach their full potential.

Treatment is mainly focused on help the person reach their full educational, social and practical potential.

Different professionals intervene (doctors, psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists …) who create an individualized plan. It is based on both strengths and weaknesses and addresses the needs of both the person with a disability and their family.

How can the likelihood of intellectual disability be reduced?

Prevention should start even before pregnancy, with good prenatal care that includes folic acid intake and appropriate vaccination. During pregnancy it is important to avoid malnutrition, alcohol and tobacco consumption, and exposure to toxic environments.

In the same way, proper medical care during delivery will help reduce the risk of complications. After birth, proper care of the child and meeting his physical and emotional needs will be essential. But, even so, it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk.

Importance of family and professional accompaniment

Intellectual disability is, in large part, due to the lack of support and not only due to low IQ. For this reason, drugs, therapies or curricular adaptations are of great importance when it comes to achieving greater development and a better quality of life.

In addition, family support is essential so that these people can actively participate in their environment. A) Yes, it is important to provide them with practical and functional tools that help the person reach their maximum potentialHe and the family to carry out this accompaniment in the best possible way.