What Is an Intellectual Disability Assessment?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 18 January 2020
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Any number of reasons could contribute to a person developing an intellectual disability, formerly known as mental retardation. Some of the more common causes are Down syndrome and autism, but the list is long. Physicians and educators use a handful of tools to perform an intellectual disability assessment, primarily starting with an intelligence quotient (IQ) test, then a battery of adaptive behavior tests to gauge how well a person has developed survival skills.

An intelligence quotient (IQ) examination is effective for intellectual disability assessment. The average score for an IQ test is 100. When a person scores a 75 or below on this test, a cognitive disability will be suspected.

Another type of intellectual disability assessment is designed to gauge a person's adaptive abilities. These tests analyze the level of survival skills that the person has acquired. This type of testing is particularly useful in determining what types of skills will be needed before a person with an intellectual disability can live independently.

When children are suspected of having a disability, physicians will analyze their development in various ways in comparison with other children. For instance, if a child has reached toddler age and still cannot crawl, walk, talk or understand basic commands, a physician may request an intellectual disability assessment to verify these suspicions. Other signs that a child may have an intellectual disability include an inability to solve basic problems, recognize consequences, follow rules and remember basic directions.


According to National Dissemination Center for Children With Disabilities (NDCCD), intellectual disability could be caused by a genetic disorder, a physical ailment like meningitis, or problems either during delivery or the mother's pregnancy. The NDCCD estimates that about 6,500,000 of more than 300,000,000 total Americans have an intellectual disability.

In the United States, special education is provided for children through age 21 who are defined by law as intellectually disabled. Until Rosa's Law was signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act still referred to these citizens as mentally retarded. The description of their condition has not changed, however. According to IDEA, these individuals display "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning" in addition to adaptive behavior problems that can have a negative affect on how well they do in educational settings during developmental stages.

Though most who undergo an intellectual disability assessment display the signs of Down syndrome or autism, others have suffered from different conditions. Psychological conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can cause this disability. It can also be caused by more permanent conditions like Asperger, Tourette or Williams syndromes.


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