Intellectual Disability

Mental Retardation is a medical term that describes an individual with cognitive and adaptive behavior skills well below the average range. A review of literature reveals that approximately 1-3% meet the criteria of mental retardation. Mental retardation is most frequently associated with Down Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Clinical psychologists and medical doctors utilize the diagnostic criteria set forth by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel IV for the diagnosis of mental retardation. Mental retardation is diagnosed by completing intellectual testing and assessment of adaptive behavior skills. This typically means an IQ test and a questionnaire-completed by parents or caretakers regarding the child’s self-help skills, communication skills, and social skills. The diagnosis is made when the IQ score falls below 70, and there are two or more areas of adaptive behavior that are well below the average range.

Intellectual Disability is the designation given by the Federal Education Code. It was recently changed from mental retardation to intellectual disability by the U.S. Congress. An intellectual disability is considered an eligible designation for special education services. It is defined by the education code as follows:

A pupil has significant below average general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior during the developmental period, which adversely affects a pupil’s educational achievement.

The following characteristics may be observed:

  • Difficulties with problem solving skills
  • Academic skills well below the child’s grade level
  • Difficulties with social interactions
  • Slow rate of learning
  • Difficulty learning a skill in one environment and then performing the skill in another environment (generalization)
  • Short attention span
  • Interest in activities preferred by a younger child

The following instructional strategies may be helpful:

  • Use concrete materials that are interesting and age appropriate
  • Provide information in small steps and repeat directions as necessary
  • Provide immediate feedback and reinforcement
  • Teach skills that the child will be able to use in a variety of settings
  • Break tasks into small segments and have child demonstrate mastery for each section before moving on to the next section of the task
  • Learn about the child’s interests and strengths
  • Provide the child with extra time and help to complete the task


Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R. &Wehmeyer, M. (2007). Exceptional lives: Special Education in today’s schools. Upper Saddle River, N. J: Pearson Education.