Cognitive Disability vs. Intellectual Disability

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Although cognitive disabilities and intellectual disabilities are related, the terms refer to different effects and conditions. In this lesson, we will discuss their similarities and differences, including where they overlap.

What are Cognitive and Intellectual Disabilities?

Mary has had trouble connecting simple ideas her whole life. As a child, she watched her mother cut an apple into pieces but could not later describe the connection between the apple and the pieces. Although she has an excellent memory, her ability to understand or apply the things she remembers is much lower than is normal for her age group.

John, on the other hand, has always been quick to grasp concepts. He can learn and remember the rules to a game, puzzle, or other activity almost instantly, adapts his knowledge quickly, and then become a superior participant. Unfortunately, John has his own kind of problem. He can't seem to focus for more than a few moments on any given topic or situation. He is easily distracted and is likely to wander off or become lost in thought right in the middle of a game or lesson.

Cognitive disabilities are obstacles to learning. A person with this type of problem experiences difficulty in perceiving, recognizing, choosing, understanding, etc. It can be an inability to focus for any significant period of time, like John. It might be a problem processing printed text, or defective short-term memory. It could be problems with the idea of number quantities or imagining shapes. Something is in the way of the learner's progress.

Intellectual disabilities are specific cognitive difficulties that create a low intelligence quotient (IQ) score and significant problems in the ways learners adapt to new situations (such as their ability to socialize or take a test). It is harder for them to understand and apply new information that comes their way. People (like Mary) with intellectual disabilities are the group that has been referred to as ''mentally retarded'' or ''mentally challenged.''

Cognitive Disabilities vs. Intellectual Disabilities

Intelligence may be defined as the ability to obtain and use knowledge in an adaptive situation, while cognition means awareness in general and the ability to learn in particular. The two terms are similar but are not interchangeable.

Cognitive Disability

For example, a child with an extremely high IQ may have severe cognitive disabilities. This child may be amazing at counting objects or doing advanced math, such as can occur in some forms of autism or attention deficit disorder. Yet, she can be painfully disabled in her ability to function in a traditional learning environment due to a constant reversing of letters, inability to process written language, or concentrate for more than a moment on a task.

Often, you can adjust and compensate for the cognitive deficiency by adapting a testing or learning method. For example, if a child has difficulty processing written text, you can provide an alternate type of exam. A child that has difficulty focusing might be aided by medication or a specific distraction-free environment. If the cognitive disability can be bypassed, the child can be brought closer to a normal life.

Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disabilities can be much more difficult to bypass or mitigate than other types of cognitive disabilities. Deficiency in a person's fundamental ability to understand and adapt to a situation impacts every area of personal capability. Limited reasoning and understanding can cause difficulty in all the academic subjects (at least, in a traditional classroom setting). The tests don't make sense, the instructions don't seem to say anything, and the assignments require capabilities that the student doesn't have. The result can be devastating to a child's development and crippling to her preparation for life.

Addressing Disabilities

In School

Individual education programs (IEPs) are designed to modify the educational environment for those with learning difficulties, allowing children with special needs to grow at a pace or in a manner that is suitable for them. Sometimes, the only thing an intellectually challenged child needs is more time to learn a subject. Learning and the associated work takes them longer. This is also true of children with certain other cognitive disabilities, such as difficulty reading printed text or a trouble with numeric quantities.

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