Intellectual Disability Speech Implications and Resources

Intellectual Disability Speech Implications
Click to view as pdf.


Intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. These limitations will cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than a typical child. This disability originates before the age of 18.

Intellectual functioning—also called intelligence—refers to general mental capacity, such as learning, reasoning, and problem solving.

Adaptive behavior comprises three skill types:

  • Conceptual skills—language and literacy; money, time, and number concepts; and self-direction.
  • Social skills—interpersonal skills, social responsibility, self-esteem, gullibility, naïveté (i.e., wariness), social problem solving, and the ability to follow rules/obey laws and to avoid being victimized.
  • Practical skills—activities of daily living (personal care), occupational skills, healthcare, travel/transportation, schedules/routines, safety, use of money, use of the telephone.


Children with an intellectual disability may:

  • sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children
  • learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking
  • find it hard to remember things
  • not understand how to pay for things
  • have trouble understanding social rules
  • have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions
  • have trouble solving problems
  • have trouble thinking logically


Doctors have found many causes of intellectual disabilities. The most common are:

  • Genetic conditions. Sometimes an intellectual disability is caused by abnormal genes inherited from parents, errors when genes combine, or other reasons. Examples of genetic conditions are Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and phenylketonuria (PKU).
  • Problems during pregnancy. An intellectual disability can result when the baby does not develop inside the mother properly. For example, there may be a problem with the way the baby’s cells divide as it grows. A woman who drinks alcohol or gets an infection like rubella during pregnancy may also have a baby with an intellectual disability.
  • Problems at birth. If a baby has problems during labor and birth, such as not getting enough oxygen, he or she may have an intellectual disability.
  • Health problems. Diseases like whooping cough, the measles, or meningitis can cause intellectual disabilities. They can also be caused by extreme malnutrition (not eating right), not getting enough medical care, or by being exposed to poisons like lead or mercury.

Implications for speech and language:

Children with an intellectual disability exhibit delays in language development.

Children and adults with an intellectual disability may need assistance with:

  • following and understanding directions
  • using and understanding spoken and written language
  • learning new information
  • understanding detailed information
  • completing tasks/documents

Communication strategies can be used to facilitate communication with a person with an intellectual disability.  When communicating with a person with an intellectual disability, it is important to acknowledge that each person is an individual and should be approached as such.  Speak clearly, using simple language.  Check for understanding by asking them to repeat instructions several times.    Break each task into steps and illustrate each step.  Don’t assume they will transfer knowledge gained in one task or another.  Use visual cues (pictures or graphics) where possible.  If there is a support person, address the person with a disability and not the support person.  Provide a lot of encouragement and monitor on a regular basis.

Diagnosing this disorder:

Speech Pathologists do not diagnose an intellectual disability.  One criterion to measure intellectual functioning is an IQ test. Generally, an IQ test score of around 70 or as high as 75 indicates a limitation in intellectual functioning.  Standardized tests may be used to determine limitations in adaptive skills.  On the basis of such many-sided evaluations, professionals can determine whether an individual has an intellectual disability and can tailor a support plan for each individual.  But in defining and assessing intellectual disability, professionals must take additional factors into account, such as the community environment typical of the individual’s peers and culture. Professionals should also consider linguistic diversity and cultural differences in the way people communicate, move, and behave.  Finally, assessments must also assume that limitations in individuals often coexist with strengths, and that a person’s level of life functioning will improve if appropriate personalized supports are provided over a sustained period.



 Books for kids:

For children about intellectual disabilities:

 Books for Parents:

Support Groups:

Type “intellectual disabilities” and search by state


FAQ on Intellectual Disability.  2010. American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Intellectual Disability.  NICHCY Disability Fact Sheet 8. January 2011. National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

Do you have more great resources for families or community members?  We would be happy to add any great resources to this webpage.  Please email us with the link or content.

Also check out: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Speech Implications, Treatment Options, and Resources

Are you in the Austin Texas Area and looking for Speech Therapy related to an Intellectual Disability?

If you are looking for Speech Therapy in Austin Texas because you have concerns about an Intellectual Disability, we are here to help.  Contact our clinicians by visiting our Speech Therapy Austin Clinic Page and give us a call or send us a message.  

We look forward to serving you.

WordPress Lightbox