Skip Navigation Link

Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center Inc.

Looking for Help?
Click Here for the Office Location Nearest You

Intellectual Functioning (Mental Abilities)

Tammy Reynolds, B.A., C.E. Zupanick, Psy.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

An intellectual disability (ID, formerly mental retardation) is a specific type of disability. This disability is caused by significant limitations in intellectual functioning (mental abilities). These limitations make it difficult to acquire important life skills. This is called adaptive functioning.

Intellectual functioning is determined by many factors. However, a primary source of this capacity is mental ability or "intelligence." Intelligence refers to the ability to reason, plan, think, and communicate. These abilities allow us to solve problems, to learn, and to use good judgment. One measure of intelligence is called the intelligence quotient, or IQ. There are standard tests that measure IQ. When someone's IQ score is below 70, it's likely they will have some problems. Because of how these tests are designed, 97.5% of the population would score above 70. These tests are discussed here.

Although ID affects learning abilities, it is not the same as another type of disability called learning disability. Learning disabilities are limited to a specific type of learning. This type is called academic learning. These are the sorts of things taught in schools. Therefore, learning disabilities affect reading, writing, and math. In contrast, intellectual disabilities affect three different types of learning. These are academic learning, experiential learning, and social learning. Children with learning disabilities have trouble with one type; academic learning. Children with intellectual disabilities have trouble with all three:

First, intellectual disabilities affect experiential learning. This type of learning occurs through cause and effect. For example, suppose a child touches a hot stove. This experience causes the child to learn to avoid touching a stove. A child with an ID does not learn from this painful experience. She does not understand the stove (the cause) caused the painful burn (the effect).

Second, intellectual disabilities affect social learning. This learning occurs by observing other people in social situations. We learn social customs and rules by watching others. For instance, we might notice it is customary to greet people by shaking hands or offering a hug. Social learning enables us to learn social skills. These skills are needed to get along well with other people. Moreover, social skills are critical to life success.

Third, intellectual disabilities affect academic learning. We learn useful skills and knowledge via formal education. These skills are reading, writing, and math. Thus, learning disabilities differ from ID because learning disabilities are limited to academic skills. In contrast, IDs include many types of learning problems. These learning difficulties make it hard to develop many practical life skills.

In addition to learning problems, limited intellectual functioning affects social and emotional functioning. Many persons with ID function on an emotional and social level far below what is average for their age. Some people consider this emotional immaturity an endearing quality. The child-like innocence, trust, wonder, and sincerity can be quite charming. However, these very same qualities make people vulnerable to victimization and cruelty.

What is an Intellectual Disability Continued
Next >>
Adaptive Behavior (Life Skills)

Share This


  • Articles

    • Introduction to Intellectual Disabilities
    • Causes of Intellectual Disabilities
    • Diagnosis of Intellectual Disabilities
      • The Diagnosis of Intellectual Disabilities
      • Psychological Tests and Intellectual Disabilities
      • Psychological Tests and Intellectual Disabilities Continued
      • Tests of Adaptive Functioning
      • Diagnostic Criteria for Intellectual Disabilities: DSM-5 Criteria
      • The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) Diagnostic Criteria for Intellectual Disability
      • Comparing the APA and the AAIDD Diagnostic Criteria for Intellectual Disability
      • Intellectual Disability and Severity Codes
      • Intellectual Disability and Other Psychiatric Disorders
    • Historical & Contemporary Perspectives of Intellectual Disabilities
      • Historical And Contemporary Perspectives on Intellectual Disabilities
      • Early Medical Explanations of Intellectual Disability
      • History of Stigmatizing Names for Intellectual Disabilities
      • History of Stigmatizing Names for Intellectual Disabilities Continued
      • Reducing the Stigma of Intellectual Disabilities: The Evolution of Modern Medical Explanations
      • Paving the Way to a Modern Conception of Intellectual Disability: Advancements in Intelligence Testing
      • Advancements in Genetic Research
      • Social and Political Controversies Associated with Intellectual Disabilities
      • Reproductive Rights for People with Intellectual Disabilities
    • Intellectual Disabilities & Supportive Rehabilitation
      • Intellectual Disabilities and Supportive Rehabilitation: Developing an Individualized Support Plan (ISP)
      • Educational Supports and Individual Educational Plans (IEPs)
      • The Choice of Educational Settings: The Pros and Cons of Mainstreaming Children With Intellectual Disabilities
      • Effective Teaching Methods for People With Intellectual Disabilities
      • Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Intellectual Disabilities
      • Physical Therapy and Sensory Skills Training
      • Individualized Support Plans: Adaptive Functioning & Life Skills
      • Social Skills Training
      • Supported Employment and Integrated Work Sites
      • Supported Housing and Community Integration
      • Therapies for Intellectual Disabilities and Outdated/Unproven Treatments
    • Support for Families of People with Intellectual Disabilities
      • Additional Support Services for People with Intellectual Disabilities and Their Families: Community Supports
      • Additional Support Services: Financial Supports
      • Additional Support Services: Family Supports
      • Additional Support Services: Advocacy and Legal Supports
    • Intellectual Disabilities Summary & Conclusion
      • Intellectual Disabilities Summary and Conclusion
    • Intellectual Disabilities Resources & References
      • Intellectual Disabilities Resources and References
      • Intellectual Disabilities Document Revision History
  • Book & Media Reviews

    • A Special Education
    • Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment
  • Videos

    • What is Intellectual Disability?
    • Let's Talk About Intellectual Disabilities: Loretta Claiborne
    • What Causes an Intellectual Disability?
    • What Is An Intellectual Disability?
    • What's disability to me? Mia's story.
    • Primary Care of Children and Young Adults with Down Syndrome
    • Dr. Tim Shriver: Intellectually Different ... Not Disabled
    • Living with Down Syndrome: Parents, Health Professionals and Personal Perspectives