What Are the Signs of an Intellectual Disability in Children?

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  • Written By: Stacy Taylor
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2019
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It isn’t always easy to detect signs of an intellectual disability in children. Symptoms can occur gradually as the child develops or appear suddenly when a child grows older. An intellectual disability in children typically is characterized by below-average scores in intelligence testing and by a limited ability to perform daily living tasks such as self-care, communication and social integration. The degree of disability varies across the population and is categorized as mild, moderate, severe or profound.

The earliest signs of an intellectual disability in children include delays in crawling, rolling over and walking. Some children also exhibit early delays in acquiring speech and communication skills. As they grow and develop, affected children might be slow to learn how to feed or dress themselves and might have trouble remembering simple details. Children who consistently engage in challenging behavior and appear to lack basic problem-solving skills or logical thinking might also have an intellectual disability.


A mild degree of disability can be the most difficult to detect because of the child’s seemingly normal acquisition of developmental milestones. Common signs of a mild delay usually manifest in the areas of learning and intelligence. Children at this level frequently score 50-70 in intelligence tests but are slow to learn academically and might require an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or similar program in school. They also might show signs of delay in achieving age-appropriate problem-solving skills. Mildly disabled children usually can achieve normal social integration as well as the ability to perform self-care tasks that are related to their daily living needs.

Children who experience a moderate intellectual disability exhibit signs across all areas of development and intelligence. They display marked delays in learning, communication and speech and usually score 35-49 in intelligence testing. Children who have this degree of disability usually will require an IEP to meet their educational needs. Some moderately disabled children might also show physical signs of their disorder, such as delays in walking and the slow development of fine motor skills or gross motor skills. Moderately disabled children usually are able to conform socially with guidance from caregivers or teachers.

Severe and profound intellectual disabilities in children feature a wide range of obvious signs across all areas of development. Typically, children at this level experience significant delays in learning how to walk, communicate and perform even simple tasks related to self-care and normal daily living. Patients who have a severe disability have few communication and speech skills but might respond to simple instructions. Profoundly affected children usually have no communication skills and might show signs of congenital abnormalities. A profound intellectual disability in children requires constant supervision and 24-hour care, but those who have a severe degree of disability might be able to learn simple self-care tasks.


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