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What Intellectual Disabilities Are

An individual is considered to have intellectual disabilities based on the following three criteria: intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75; significant limitations exist in two or more adaptive skills areas; and the condition is present from childhood (defined as age 18 or less).

Adaptive skill areas are those daily living skills needed to live, work and play in the community. They include communication, self-care, home living, social skills, leisure, health and safety, self-direction, functional academics (reading, writing, basic math), community participation and employment.

Adaptive skills are assessed based upon the person’s typical environment and involve all aspects of an individual’s life. A person with intellectual functioning limits who is not limited in adaptive skill areas may not be diagnosed as having intellectual disabilities. Disability researchers say an estimated 2% of the United States population has intellectual disabilities. According to the 2000 census, that's approximately 7 million people.

Intellectual disabilities are 10 times more common than cerebral palsy and 28 times more prevalent than neural tube defects such as spina bifida. It affects 25 times as many people as blindness.

The effects of intellectual disabilities vary considerably among people, just as the range of abilities varies considerably among people who do not have intellectual disabilities. About 87% are mildly affected and will be only a slightly less proficient than average in learning new information and skills. An intellectual disability is not always readily apparent and may not be identified until a person enters school.

As adults, many individuals are able to lead independent lives in the community and are no longer viewed as having intellectual disabilities. The remaining 13% of people with intellectual disabilities, those with IQs under 50, have serious limitations in basic functioning. However, with early intervention, effective education and appropriate support into adulthood, an individual can lead a satisfying life in the community.

Intellectual disabilities can be caused by any condition that impairs development of the brain before birth, during birth or during the childhood years. Several hundred causes have been discovered, but in about one-third of the people affected, the cause remains unknown. The three major known causes of intellectual disabilities are Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and Fragile X.

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