Centre for Accessibility Services

Intellectual disability

What is an intellectual disability?

An intellectual disability is also known as intellectual developmental disorder, which happens during the developmental period of human growth. The deficits include both intellectual and adaptive functioning challenges in conceptual, social, and practical domains. There are four levels of severity: mild, moderate, severe and profound, each having to meet certain characteristics for diagnosis. Causes of the disability can be a result of challenges at prenatal and/or childbirth stages. They can also be the result of injury and/or disease. Personalized supports can be provided through professional services that offer support to those impacted by an intellectual disability.

Common types of intellectual disabilities with DSM-5 coding

  • Intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) – DSM-5 code: 317-318.2
  • Global developmental delay – DSM-5 code: 315.8
  • Unspecified intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) – DSM-5 code: 319

Symptoms & common characteristics

  • Impairment in short-term memory, abstract thinking, planning, organizing, setting priorities as well as functional use of academic skills
  • Immature social interactions with peers
  • Difficulties understanding social skills
  • Communication, conversation, and language immaturity
  • Challenges with emotional regulation
  • Being easily manipulated

Centre for Accessibility support for intellectual disabilities may include

  • Alternate format materials (texts in PDF/E-text)
  • Separate setting/distraction reduced exam setting
  • Reader and/or scribe for exams
  • Assistive technology
  • Time accommodation for exams
  • The use of a computer for exams
  • Spell-check and/or grammar-check for exams
  • Note-taking services
  • Preferential seating in Class

Sources

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

WebMD – Intellectual disability

How to support students with intellectual disability

  • Keep instructions as brief and uncomplicated as possible.
  • Use concrete language.
  • Provide hand-outs (preferably electronically) in advance of lectures and display main points to be covered in each session.
  • Use more than one way to demonstrate or explain information.
  • When teaching, state objectives, review previous lessons and summarize periodically.
  • Allow time for clarification of directions and essential information.
  • Provide study guides or review sheets for exams.
  • Give any instructions or explanations in a clear sequence, orally and in writing, and explain the purpose of whatever is to be done.
  • Allow the use of spell-check and grammar assistive devices when appropriate to the course and if provided as a recommended accommodation.
  • Divide work into smaller sections (i.e., have the student complete one section at a time; suggest times and expectations for completion).
  • Link new information to the student's relevant prior knowledge.
  • Slow down the pace of instruction during class.
  • When in doubt about how to assist the student, ask them as privately as possible without drawing attention to the student or the disability.
  • Help students develop note-taking skills and encourage them to work in pairs or small groups after lectures to pool notes and review topics.
  • Give the student time to think before answering questions in class, and enough time to read the information before being expected to use or discuss the material.
  • Contact the Centre for Accessibility Services for general ideas to help individual students.

Resources and websites 

Intellectual disabilities

American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

WebMD – Intellectual disability

National Down Syndrome Society – What is an intellectual disability?

Tips and tools for students with intellectual disabilities

Lack of attention/focus: It may take longer to do things. Try to focus on one thing at a time. Reduce distractions by working in a clear area and wear ear-plugs to block out sounds that may be distracting.

Memory: Use a calendar, journal or notepad to help keep track of important information. Timers and alarms can help remind you of appointments, projects or class time. Ask a family member or friend to help with reminders, maybe using them as a backpack plan to your technology.

Thinking: You may need more time to process information. Avoid multitasking to give yourself more time to think things through. Break tasks into smaller steps to simplify the process and think about each step, one at a time. Ask for help to remember things or think through complicated tasks.

Communication outside of class: If you are having a hard time communicating, try and keep it simple. Use short sentences to get to the point. Patience can be key to organizing your thoughts into what you are trying to say so don’t rush. Ask questions if you are unsure what is being said or don’t understand. If speaking is difficult, try using a notepad or computer to write your message and relay it through email or other useful technology.

Emotions: If you are feeling emotional, take a breath and try to think of something positive. It may help to keep a list of positive things that you can focus on. Find strategies that help calm you down such as counting to ten, going for a walk, or deep breaths. Take a break and come back to what you were doing once you are more relaxed. Write down your feelings and consider speaking with a counsellor and/or doctor about your challenges.

Resources and websites

Intellectual disabilities

American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

WebMD – Intellectual disability

National Down Syndrome Society – What is an intellectual disability?

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