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Intellectual disabilities – learning slowly

slow; learning; intellectual; disability; development; delay;

What is 'intellectual disability'?

Kids with an intellectual [say in-tee-lek-chew-al] disability learn more slowly than other kids of their age.


What causes intellectual disability?

Sometimes it is hard to work out why someone has an intellectual disability.

Here are some of the causes

  • An infection during pregnancy eg rubella
  • Other problems during pregnancy– usually the reasons for this are not known.
  • Some types of infection around the brain after birth
  • A head or brain injury (perhaps a child who nearly drowned or was in a bad car accident)
  • Genetic conditions like Down syndrome
  • Other problems such as autism.

What is it like? 


It depends how severe the disability is.

Maybe someone has problems with basic skills like understanding what is happening around them because they can’t make sense of the information coming from their senses [touch, taste, smell, seeing, hearing and movement].


They could have problems with;

  • talking and listening
  • dressing themselves
  • looking after themselves
  • keeping themselves safe
  • moving around e.g. walking, running, throwing and catching etc.
  • learning and remembering new things
  • thinking and working things out 
  • controlling their feelings and emotions
  • learning how to act around other people

The greater the disability the harder it is for a person to learn and grow up to be independent of others.

Health professionals may say that someone has ‘developmental delay’ if he or she is slow at learning under the age of 5, compared to others of that age.

A team of people including doctors, occupational therapists, speech therapists psychologists and teachers can arrange for a child to have assessments if the child is having difficulties learning the range of skills needed to live and work in the community.

If a child is assessed as having an intellectual disability then there are different kinds of support when it is needed for the child and the family when the person is at different ages and stages of their life.

This could be help with schooling, transport, carers and later on maybe a special house where people can live independently from their family with support from carers.

Every child is an individual

All of these tests can be done and doctors and other professionals can work out what might help the child, but it is really important that everyone works out what a child can do, not only what they have trouble doing. People need to find out how each child can live and learn - not the test result.   

  • A child who is slower to learn some things will still be learning all the time.
  • A child who is slower to learn some things will need to play with other children, be a friend and have friends, have fun and do the things that other children are doing at school and at home.
  • A child who is slower to learn some things is a person who has feelings and opinions and lots of abilities too.

You can learn a lot from a child who is slower to learn some things than you may be. And you may find out that you have a happy and loyal friend too.   face 


   Parents or carers will become the experts and the people who stand up for the rights of someone who has an intellectual disability.

  • They will need to find out about the disability and how it affects their child.
  • They will need to learn how they can help the child.
  • They will need to find out where to get the kind of support they need for the child and for themselves.
  • They will need to work with the school to make sure that their child gets the best experience possible at school
  • They will need to help and support others in the family, especially brothers and sisters of the child with the disability.

All of this can be very tiring.  But mostly parents love their child and enjoy being with their child.

Other children in the family may have mixed up feelings about their sibling. They may have to be carers for their sibling at times and they may be able to protect their sibling if there is trouble with other kids at school. Have a look at the topic ‘Having a disabled child in the family’.

How you can help someone with intellectual disability

At one time kids with intellectual disabilities would all go to special schools with other kids who also had various disabilities.

In the ‘olden days’ many kids would be sent to live in special ‘homes’, where they were separated from their families.

Now most children go to regular schools and live at home with their families. They may be in a special class with a specialist teacher or have a special carer who helps them in a regular class. If you have kids in your school who have an intellectual disability then

good social skills 
  • remember to be kind, thoughtful and helpful towards them
  • tell a teacher if teasing or bullying is happening
  • smile and say hello
  • let them play with you
  • encourage them to try
  • be friendly

Dr Kate says

Dr Kate 

None of us can choose which family to be born into, where to be born, or what physical or mental problems we may be born with or have during our lives. But all of us can work to become the best we can be if we try hard ourselves and help others to try too.

Many health professionals and staff in schools can work with a child with a disability and his or her family to make sure that they can get the help they need.


If you have a brother or sister who is disabled in some way our topic “Having a disabled child in the family” may be helpful for you.

More to read

There is more information in  these related topics

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We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.


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