Intellectual Disabilities

Downs Syndrome group at community center

Facts About Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disability is a term used when there are limits to a person’s ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life. Levels of intellectual disability vary greatly in children. Children with intellectual disabilities might have a hard time letting others know their wants and needs and taking care of themselves. An intellectual disability could cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than other children of the same age. It could take longer for a child with an intellectual disability to learn to speak, walk, dress, or eat without help, and they could have trouble learning in school.

An injury, disease, or a problem in the brain can cause an intellectual disability any time before a child turns 18 years old – even before birth. For many children, the cause of their intellectual disability is not known. Some of the most commonly known causes of intellectual disability – like Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, fragile X syndrome, genetic conditions, congenital disabilities, and infections – happen before birth. Others happen while a baby is being born or soon after birth. Still, other causes of intellectual disability do not occur until a child is older; these might include serious head injury, stroke, or certain infections.

Usually, the more severe the degree of intellectual disability, the earlier parents or someone else notice the signs. However, it might still be hard to tell how young children will be affected later in life.

There are many signs of intellectual disability. For example, children with an intellectual disability may:

  • sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children
  • learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking
  • find it hard to remember things
  • have difficulty understanding social rules
  • have trouble seeing the results of their actions
  • have trouble solving problems

Talk to your:

Younger and older person with downs syndrome

Learning Disorders In Children

Many children may struggle in school with some topics or skills from time to time. When children try hard and still struggle with a specific set of skills over time, it could be a sign of a learning disorder. Having a learning disorder means that a child has difficulty in one or more areas of learning, even when overall intelligence or motivation is not affected.

Some of the symptoms of learning disorders are

  • Difficulty telling right from left
  • Reversing letters, words, or numbers, after first or second grade
  • Difficulties recognizing patterns or sorting items by size or shape
  • Difficulty understanding and following instructions or staying organized
  • Difficulty remembering what was just said or what was just read
  • Lacking coordination when moving around
  • Difficulties doing tasks with the hands, like writing, cutting, or drawing
  • Difficulty understanding the concept of time

Examples of learning disorders include

  • Dyslexia – difficulty with reading
  • Dyscalculia – difficulty with math
  • Dysgraphia – difficulty with writing

Children with learning disorders may feel frustrated that they cannot master a subject despite trying hard, and may act out, act helpless, or withdraw. Learning disorders can also be present with emotional or behavioral disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or anxiety. The combination of problems can make it particularly hard for a child to succeed in school. Properly diagnosing each disorder is crucial, so that the child can get the right kind of help for each.

Children with learning disorders often need extra help and instruction that are specialized for them. Having a learning disorder can qualify a child for special education services in school. Schools usually do their own testing for learning disorders to see if a child needs intervention. An evaluation by a healthcare professional is needed if there are other concerns about the child’s behavior or emotions. Parents, healthcare providers, and the school can work together to find the right referrals and treatment.

Children with specific learning disabilities are eligible for special education services or accommodations at school under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA)  and an anti-discrimination law known as Section 504.

What is Down Syndrome?

     Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition that is associated with intellectual disability, a characteristic facial appearance, and weak muscle tone (hypotonia) in infancy. All affected individuals experience cognitive delays, but the intellectual disability is usually mild to moderate.


     Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. A medical term for having an extra copy of a chromosome is ‘trisomy.’ Another name for Down syndrome is Trisomy 21. This extra copy changes how the baby’s body and brain develop, which can cause both mental and physical challenges for the baby, causing the associated characteristics of Down Syndrome.

A few of the physical traits of Down syndrome are low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes, and a single deep crease across the center of the palm.  Not all individuals with Down Syndrome have all characteristics, and when traits are present, the degree varies.

Some common physical features of Down syndrome include:

  • A flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose
  • Almond-shaped eyes that slant up
  • A short neck
  • Small ears
  • A tongue that tends to stick out of the mouth
  • Tiny white spots on the iris (colored part) of the eye
  • Small hands and feet
  • A single line across the palm of the hand (palmar crease)
  • Small pinky fingers that sometimes curve toward the thumb
  • Poor muscle tone or loose joints
  • Shorter in height as children and adults

People with Down syndrome may have a variety of congenital disabilities. About half of all affected children are born with a heart defect. The most common congenital cardiac defect in people with Down syndrome is the atrioventricular (AV) canal defect (also known as an AV septal defect or endocardial cushion defect). The next most common are ventricular septal defects. Other defects encountered in people with Down syndrome include atrial septal defects and tetralogy of Fallot.  Digestive abnormalities, such as a blockage of the intestine, are less common.

Individuals with Down syndrome have an increased risk of developing several medical conditions. These include gastroesophageal reflux, which is a backflow of acidic stomach contents into the esophagus, and celiac disease, which is an intolerance of a wheat protein called gluten. About 15 percent of people with Down syndrome have an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). Individuals with Down syndrome also have an increased risk of hearing and vision problems. Additionally, a small percentage of children with Down syndrome develop leukemia.

Children with Down syndrome frequently have delayed development and behavioral problem. Affected individuals’ speech and language develop later and more slowly than in children without Down syndrome and may be more challenging to understand. Behavioral issues can include attention problems, obsessive/compulsive behavior, and stubbornness, or tantrums. A small percentage of people with Down syndrome receive a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, also.

People with Down syndrome often experience a gradual decline in thinking ability (cognition) as they age, usually starting around age 50.  Approximately half of adults with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s disease.

A doctor who specializes in caring for Down Syndrome children is recommended as your best option to answer that question and to be with you during your early years of providing care for your new child. However, most articles I read recommended a hearing and vision screening, an echocardiogram, thyroid levels, and testing for celiac disease as a basic.

  • People with Down syndrome should always be referred to as people
  • Instead of “a Down syndrome child,” it should be “a child with Down syndrome.” Also avoid “Down’s child” and describing the condition as “Down’s,” as in, “He has Down’s.”
  • Down syndrome is a condition or a syndrome, not a
  • People “have” Down syndrome, they do not “suffer from” it and are not “afflicted by”
  • “Typically developing” or “typical” is preferred over “normal.”
  • “Intellectual disability” or “cognitive disability” has replaced “mental retardation” as the appropriate term
  • NDSS strongly condemns the use of the word “retarded” in any derogatory context. Using this word is hurtful and suggests that people with disabilities are not

Down vs. Down’s


  • NDSS uses the preferred spelling, Down syndrome, rather than Down’s
  • Down syndrome is named for the English physician John Langdon Down, who characterized the condition, but did not have it. An “apostrophe s” connotes ownership or
  • While Down syndrome is listed in many dictionaries with both popular spellings (with or without an apostrophe s), the preferred usage in the United States is Down syndrome. The AP Stylebook recommends using “Down syndrome,” as well.

Down syndrome baby playing at home
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