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4 min read

The Science Behind Intellectual Disabilities- How They Form and Present Themselves

In 2021, over 57 million adults in the United States reportedly had some type of mental illness. These range not only in severity but also in disability- some mental health organizations recognize over 200 various mental disorders. Mental disabilities can have an impact on a variety of areas, including the ability to learn new things or certain subjects, disorders that affect physical movement, and more. Mental illnesses often influence a person’s mood, emotions, behaviors, and cognitive function. Depending on the condition, mental illnesses can be chronic or short-term but can cause challenges in the person’s everyday life, including their education, job, and relationships.  

Behavioral Characteristics of Intellectual Disability 

Behavioral characteristics of intellectual disability refer to the observable actions, reactions, and patterns of behavior exhibited by individuals with intellectual disabilities. These characteristics can vary widely among individuals and are often influenced by the severity of the intellectual disability, its underlying causes, and the presence of co-occurring conditions. Here are some common behavioral characteristics associated with intellectual disability: 

  1. Cognitive Challenges: People with intellectual disabilities may exhibit difficulty in understanding and processing information. They may struggle with problem-solving, abstract thinking, and logical reasoning, which can impact their ability to make decisions or learn new concepts.
  2. Communication Difficulties: Many individuals with intellectual disabilities may have limited verbal communication skills or face challenges in expressing themselves effectively. This can lead to frustration and behavioral outbursts when they cannot convey their needs or feelings.
  3. Adaptive Functioning Delays: Adaptive functioning refers to a person's ability to carry out everyday tasks and adapt to their environment. Individuals with intellectual disabilities often have delays in acquiring practical life skills, such as self-care, social interactions, and managing daily routines.
  4. Social and Emotional Issues: Social challenges are common, including difficulty forming and maintaining friendships, recognizing social cues, and understanding social norms. Emotional regulation may also be compromised, leading to mood swings, anxiety, or heightened sensitivity to stressors.
  5. Behavioral Challenges: Some individuals with intellectual disabilities may exhibit challenging behaviors, such as aggression, impulsivity, self-injury, or tantrums. These behaviors can be a means of communication when individuals struggle to express their needs or frustrations verbally.
  6. Attention and Hyperactivity Issues: Attention deficits and hyperactivity, similar to those seen in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), can co-occur with intellectual disabilities. These characteristics can affect an individual's ability to focus and sustain attention.
  7. Repetitive Behaviors: Repetitive movements or behaviors, such as hand-flapping or rocking, are sometimes observed in individuals with intellectual disabilities. These behaviors may serve as self-soothing mechanisms or sensory stimulations.
  8. Difficulty with Transitions: Change and transitions can be challenging for individuals with intellectual disabilities. They may struggle to adapt to new environments, routines, or expectations, leading to anxiety or behavioral disruptions.

It's important to remember that these behavioral characteristics can vary widely from person to person. Early intervention, individualized support, and appropriate therapies can help individuals with intellectual disabilities develop their strengths, improve their adaptive functioning, and manage challenging behaviors effectively. Additionally, a supportive and understanding environment plays a crucial role in promoting their overall well-being and quality of life. 

 How do disabilities form? 

Having a mental illness can depend on many factors, and some may be more likely to develop certain conditions than others. Some are caused by family history, including:  

-Family genetics or having a history of certain illnesses in a family  

-Chemical imbalances in the brain 

-A mother using drugs or alcohol during her pregnancy  

 Disabilities can also be caused by outside factors, including but not limited to:  

-Using recreational drugs or consuming too much alcohol 

-Difficulty making or keeping close relationships and being isolated 

-Being involved in a physical accident  

-Having an illness such as cancer  

-Exposure to excessive stress in everyday life or trauma  

 Statistically, over half the United States will be affected by some type of mental illness in their life at some point, as mental illnesses are common.  

 Who is most affected? 

Data shows that although anyone can be subjected to some type of mental illness, it appears to affect more adult women. However, reports also show an estimation of almost 50% of adolescents have an active mental disorder of some kind.  This includes ages between 13-18 years old.  

 How does mental illness present itself? 

The way a mental illness or disability presents itself largely depends on the condition itself. For example, having a learning disability may require an academic evaluation. A student may show difficulty doing well in certain subjects or have challenges learning new things. Another example may be a lack of fine motor skills, indicating a neurological or physical condition. Mental illnesses, regardless of how they present or form, can often have an impact on various aspects. This includes:  

-Making and maintaining relationships  

-Succeeding academically  

-Holding a consistent job  

-Mobility and movement of everyday tasks  

 How are illnesses treated? 

This again depends on the type of illness or disability. Over time, the healthcare industry has made great advancements. Treatments for specific conditions often include certain medications, counseling, physical therapy, and education on the condition the person has. With effective treatment and the type of illness, people can often live a normal life or significantly reduce their symptoms if their disability is chronic or long-term.  

If you are interested in exploring the social aspect of interacting with a disability, check out Hello, It's Me today.   



  1. How does intellectual disability present?

Intellectual disability can present in various ways, affecting an individual's ability to think, learn, and solve problems. Common signs include difficulty with learning, reasoning, problem-solving, and adaptive functioning, which impacts daily life skills. 

  1. How is an intellectual disability caused or developed?
Intellectual disabilities can result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and developmental factors. These factors can include genetic mutations, prenatal exposure to toxins or infections, brain injuries, and postnatal factors like trauma or illness.
  1. Which are the main causes of intellectual disability?
The main causes of intellectual disability encompass a wide range of factors. These include genetic conditions (like Down syndrome), prenatal factors (such as exposure to alcohol during pregnancy), perinatal factors (such as birth complications), and postnatal factors (like traumatic brain injuries).
  1. Is intellectual disability developmental or acquired?
Intellectual disability can be either developmental or acquired. Developmental intellectual disabilities are typically present from birth or become evident during childhood. Acquired intellectual disabilities can occur later in life due to factors like brain injuries, infections, or degenerative conditions. 
  1. What stage of development is intellectual disability?
Intellectual disabilities can manifest at various stages of development. Some become apparent in early childhood, while others may become noticeable during adolescence or adulthood. The specific timing can depend on the underlying causes and the individual's unique circumstances.
  1. Are intellectual disabilities a form of cognitive development?
Intellectual disabilities are not considered a form of typical cognitive development. Instead, they represent challenges or delays in cognitive development. Cognitive development refers to the natural progression of thinking and learning abilities in typically developing individuals, while intellectual disabilities represent deviations from this norm.


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(2020, May 30). Mental Disorders. Medline Plus. Retrieved August 30, 2023, from,chemical%20imbalances%20in%20the%20brain 

NIH (2023, March). Mental Illness. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved August 30, 2023, from,mild%20to%20moderate%20to%20severe

MHA (2023). Mental Illness and the Family: Recognizing Warning Signs and How to Cope. Mental Health America. Retrieved August 30, 2023, from,habits%20and%2For%20social%20withdrawal

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