Students with Intellectual Disabilities

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  • 0:04 Intellectual Disabilities
  • 1:58 Characteristics
  • 3:10 Equipping Classrooms
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Students with intellectual disabilities have unique characteristics and special needs. This lesson defines and explains the concept of intellectual disability and considers how these students may interact and learn differently in the classroom.

Intellectual Disabilities

Have you ever known anyone with a disability? Physical disabilities are sometimes easy to spot just by looking at someone - if the person is communicating with sign language or using a wheelchair, they are likely hard of hearing or physically disabled in some way. But not all disabilities are so easy to see. Intellectual and learning disabilities, for example, are not something you can see at first glance. So, how do we know if an individual has an intellectual disability?

To be officially diagnosed as intellectually disabled, a person must score at or below 70 on a special test designed to measure intellectual skills. The test must be given in a controlled setting by a professional. A score of 70 is well below the average level of functioning, which is 100. These scores compare the individual to others in his or her age bracket. Let's take a closer look at this idea with an example.

Joey, Tanya, and Jane are seven years old. They are given tests to examine intellectual aptitude as part of an educational assessment at school. Intellectual aptitude is essentially each person's ability to think, problem solve, and reason. Joey scores 100 on the test; his score indicates that he is right on track compared to most other 7-year-olds. Tanya scores 110; her score suggests that Tanya has a slightly higher level of intellectual functioning than her classmates of the same age.

Jane scores 70 on the assessment; this low score suggests that Jane is functioning at a different level than her classmates, which means she might have an intellectual disability. To really figure out what's going on with Jane, the teachers should do additional testing and maybe some specialized work with her to better understand her intellectual skill set.

Now that we know how a student is diagnosed with an intellectual disability, let's take a closer look at some of the common characteristics associated with this type of disability.


The hallmark of an intellectual disability is delayed intellectual functioning. Intellectual functioning is the way and speed at which a person's brain works. Delays in intellectual functioning impact many different areas of development because the brain is in charge of growth and behavior. For example, 7-year-old Jane, who scored 70 on the assessment, will likely be different than her classmates in specific ways.

Jane's intellectual impairment may make her seem younger than her classmates. This will be demonstrated physically, socially, and in her speech and academic progress.

Physically, Jane may be smaller and slower than her classmates due to the cognitive impairment. Socially, Jane may not quite fit in with her peers and she might seem immature to them.

Jane's speech will likely be slower and more simplistic. She may have a hard time keeping up with her classmates when it comes to homework and classroom tasks due to problems with memory, reasoning, and information processing. She may also struggle with basic self-care tasks, such as using the restroom, washing her hands, and eating.

All of these differences may really set Jane apart from her classmates. What can be done in the classroom to meet her needs?

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