Learning About Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: The Basics


As part of Griffin’s Place’s mission, we want to help educate the community and so, in keeping in that spirit, we’ll be creating and sharing a series of blog posts based on our Volunteer Training. This is our first article in the series, so welcome!

First things first…

What is 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.

Someone who has an intellectual disability will have trouble learning and functioning in everyday life. This person could be 14 years old, but might not talk or write as well as a typical 14-year-old. He or she also is usually slower to learn other skills, like how to get dressed or how to act around other people.

But having an intellectual disability doesn’t mean a person can’t learn. Ask anyone who knows and loves a person with an intellectual disability! Some kids with autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy may be described as having an intellectual disability, yet they often have a great capacity to learn and become quite capable kids.

Just like other health problems, an intellectual disability can be mild (smaller) or major (bigger). The bigger the disability, the more trouble someone will have learning and becoming an independent person.

What Causes Intellectual Disabilities?

Intellectual disabilities happen because the brain gets injured or a problem prevents the brain from developing normally. These problems can happen during pregnancy, during the baby’s birth, or after the baby is born. Many times, though, doctors don’t know the cause.
Here are some problems that can cause intellectual disabilities:

  • There’s a problem with the baby’s genes, which are in every cell and determine how the body will develop. (Genes are inherited from both parents, so a baby might receive genes that are abnormal or the genes might change while the baby is developing.)

  • There’s a problem during the pregnancy. Sometimes, the mom might get an illness or infection that can harm the baby. Taking certain medicines while pregnant can cause problems for the baby. Drinking alcohol or taking illegal drugs also can damage a baby’s developing brain.

  • During childbirth, the baby doesn’t get enough oxygen.

  • The baby is born way too early.

  • After being born, the baby gets a serious brain infection.

  • A serious head injury can hurt the brain and cause intellectual disabilities at any point during life. Some of these disabilities are temporary and others can be permanent. (That’s why it’s important to wear your bike helmet and always wear a seatbelt in the car!)

Doctors figure out that someone has an intellectual disability by testing how well the person thinks and solves problems. If a problem is spotted, doctors and other professionals can work with the family to decide what type of help is needed.

Are Intellectual Disabilities the same as Developmental Disabilities?

“Developmental Disabilities” is an umbrella term that includes intellectual disability but also includes other disabilities that are apparent during childhood.

Developmental disabilities are severe chronic disabilities that can be cognitive or physical or both. The disabilities appear before the age of 22 and are likely to be lifelong. Some developmental disabilities are largely physical issues, such as cerebral palsy or epilepsy. Some individuals may have a condition that includes a physical and intellectual disability, for example, Down syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome.

Intellectual disability encompasses the “cognitive” part of this definition, that is, a disability that is broadly related to thought processes. Because intellectual and other developmental disabilities often co-occur, intellectual disability professionals often work with people who have both types of disabilities.

What is the most modern thinking about how to help people with intellectual disability?

The overarching reason for evaluating and classifying individuals with an intellectual disability is to tailor supports for each individual, in the form of a set of strategies and services provided over a sustained period.
Griffin’s Place’s goal is to enhance people’s functioning within their own community in order to lead a more successful and satisfying life. This enhancement is thought of in terms encouraging everyone to contribute their unique talents and abilities towards a shared experience, provide the opportunity to join together in service to one another, and connect people to opportunities that strengthen their connection to the community.

Remember: A person is a person first and everything else is just a single facet of who they are!