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The Diagnosis of Intellectual Disabilities

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

The first indication of an intellectual disability (ID, formerly mental retardation) is usually a child's physical and behavioral characteristics. Once an intellectual disability is suspected, a formal evaluation and assessment begins.

The evaluation begins with a complete physical examination. A thorough review of medical history identifies any physical or medical causes of the troubling symptoms. Some medical conditions that cause ID can be treated effectively. However, even reversible conditions require immediate attention. This is because prompt attention reduces the risk of lasting brain damage. Hyperthyroidism is an example of a treatable condition that can cause an intellectual disability if not treated promptly. If a neurological cause of the symptoms is suspected, the child is referred to a neurologist for further testing. The many causes of ID are discussed in another section.

Previously, we reviewed intellectual disabilities are defined by two major symptoms. First, there are limitations in intellectual functioning (mental abilities). Second, there are limitations in adaptive functioning or life skills. These life skills include conceptual, social, and practical skills. Therefore, a medical evaluation is just the beginning of the assessment process. A thorough assessment usually includes the following:

  • comprehensive medical exam;
  • possible genetic and neurological testing;
  • social and familial history;
  • educational history;
  • psychological testing to assess intellectual functioning;
  • testing of adaptive functioning;
  • interviews with primary caregivers;
  • interviews with teachers;
  • social and behavioral observations of the child in natural environments

As mentioned, intellectual functioning and adaptive functioning are the primary diagnostic criteria. In the next section, we discuss various tests used to assess intellectual functioning and adaptive functioning. Since significant limitations in these two areas are the defining features of intellectual disabilities, these tests are essential to the diagnostic process.

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Psychological Tests and Intellectual Disabilities

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Resources

  • 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