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Cognitive Disability: Characteristics & Management

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

There are a variety of recognized cognitive disabilities ranging from mild to severe. This lesson will review the characteristics of cognitive disabilities and provide some suggestions for managing and caring for people with such disabilities.

Memory Problems

Laura just received an urgent call from her mother's caregiver. It appears her mother wandered away from her home while her caregiver was busy fixing lunch. The caregiver checked the neighborhood with the help of some of the neighbors, but started to panic when after an hour, Laura's mom still didn't turn up. Laura knows her mother has early-onset dementia and would have trouble finding her way back home or recalling her address. Laura quickly drives to her mother's home, and when her mother still has not shown up, Laura decides that it's best to involve the police in trying to locate her.

Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities are disabilities that interfere with the everyday normal functioning of the brain. They are common and affect approximately 16 million people living within the United States. Cognitive disabilities can be severe and disrupt normal life, such as in the case of Laura's mom, or they can be mild and have only a slight impact on daily functioning.

Mild Cognitive Disabilities

Mild cognitive disabilities are typically diagnosed in children and young adults, and typically involve some type of learning disability. Below are just a few of the conditions that are often referred to as mild cognitive disabilities:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) - involves the inability to maintain focus and attention
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - inability to maintain focus combined with the inability to sit still for prolonged periods of time
  • Difficulty memorizing material
  • Dyslexia - difficulty reading

Although these cognitive disabilities can have an impact on school performance, socialization, and behavior, they are referred to as mild because they are relatively easy to manage, and individuals who are diagnosed are still able to live mostly normal lives.

Severe Cognitive Disabilities

The majority of severe cognitive disabilities tend to occur in older individuals over the age of 50, although they can occur at any age. Severe cognitive disabilities tend to limit major life activities, and individuals diagnosed with them often need daily assisted living care. Some examples of severe cognitive disabilities include:

  • Dementia - a drastic, sudden drop in intellectual functioning
  • Alzheimer's Disease - the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer's is a progressive disease which impacts the ability to remember things
  • Traumatic brain injury - injury that is sustained to the brain as a result of some type of accident or incident
  • Down Syndrome - a genetic condition, often present at birth, which can present itself in varying degrees of severity.

Management of Cognitive Disabilities

How to most effectively manage cognitive disabilities greatly depends upon the severity of the condition. Let's take a look at two examples, one focusing on management of a minor cognitive disability and the other focusing on management of a severe disability.

Jack and the Erasers - Managing a Mild Cognitive Disability

Jack is an active fourth grader who has a difficult time following directions and sitting still. He collects erasers and spends time pretending they are interacting with each other rather than focusing on the teacher and the class material. After a parent-teacher conference, it is agreed upon to have Jack evaluated by a psychologist. After obtaining behavior ratings from multiple sources, the psychologist concludes that Jack has ADHD.

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