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Intellectual Disabilities

What does it mean to have intellectual disability?
All people are different, with different strengths and support needs. However there are three core features that people must have in order to receive a ‘diagnosis’ of intellectual disability:

  • an IQ score of less than 70-75;
  • difficulties with ‘adaptive skills’ - such as following directions and understanding abstract concepts
  • the existence of the first two characteristics prior to the age of 18.

    In practical terms, having an intellectual disability may mean:
  • The need for support (either short term or life-long) with some daily living tasks, such as financial management, meal planning, accessing public transport or self care
  • Some difficulties with learning new information and understanding complex instructions.

Having an intellectual disability does not mean:

  • You are sick or need to be cured
  • You have been bewitched
  • You will grow out of it - instead, you will learn to live with this, just as all people who are adequately supported learn to live with their own characteristics.

What causes intellectual disability?
For many people with intellectual disability, no cause can be identified. However, the most common causes are genetic, physical or environmental in nature.

  • An example of genetic factors is the condition of Down’s Syndrome, where an additional chromosome is found next to the usual 23 pairs.
  • Physical factors include prenatal factors (maternal infection), perinatal factors which affect the child during birth (lack of oxygen or injury), or postnatal factors (head injury, infections, accidents, encephalitis, meningitis or child abuse).
  • Environmental factors include inadequate nutrition or health care.

How are the different ‘types’ or ‘levels’ of intellectual disability defined?
In the past, people with intellectual disability have been categorised as having mild to profound intellectual disability. These days, however, we recognise that the primary reason for knowing someone's ‘level’ of intellectual disability is to identify suitable ways of providing support for this person. Therefore, the ‘levels’ are defined according to the support needs of the person.

Characteristics of support for people with different levels of intellectual disability include:
Intermittent support needs: episodic, not ongoing, every now and then depending on what's happening for that person. For example, support may be suitable at times of significant change, such as when someone starts a new job. However, support is not required on a daily basis for the whole of someone's life.

  • Low or limited support needs: minimal support is provided on an ongoing, life long basis.
  • Medium or extensive support needs: more substantial amounts of support are provided on an ongoing basis.
  • High or pervasive support needs: ongoing and provided for all daily living activities, including all personal care and self-maintenance activities (such as bathing and eating).
  • It is important to keep in mind the fact that people's support needs change over time, and relate strongly on the supportiveness of their physical environment and other contextual issues. For example, a person's support needs may differ depending on whether or not they have access to particular technologies such as an electronically operated wheelchair, or access to routine activities which may provide a sense of structure.

When people with intellectual disabilities are unable to attain or maintain a job, it is most often due to an absence of social skills rather than an inadequacy to perform the work required. Best Buddies introduces socialization opportunities and job coaching, providing the necessary tools for people with intellectual disabilities to become more independent and, consequently, more included in the community.