Primary Characteristics of Students with Intellectual Disabilities

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 24, 2013

In this article, we take a closer look at the characteristics of children and youth with mild intellectual disabilities.  We will describe these students based on key learning, cognitive, and social characteristics.

While we discuss several characteristics that are often seen when a student is identified with a mild intellectual disability, we do not mean to suggest that all students with this disability are alike. Indeed, as with any group of people, students with mild intellectual disabilities vary widely in their ability to do schoolwork and adjust to social situations in school and other locations. However, in contrast to most other disability categories, students with mild intellectual disabilities tend to have more general, delayed development in academic, social, and adaptive skills. This delayed development is reflected in low achievement across content and skill areas as well as significantly lower scores on measures of intelligence and adaptive behavior when compared with students who are not identified with intellectual disabilities.

Academic Performance

Students who are identified with mild intellectual disabilities lag significantly behind grade-level peers in developing academic skills. Thus, students with mild intellectual disabilities are likely to be significantly delayed in learning to read and learning basic math skills (Taylor, Richards, & Brady, 2005). This delay in developing foundational skills in reading and math, coupled with delays in language skills, then results in delays in other academic areas that require the use of these skills (e.g., writing, spelling, science).

Students with intellectual disabilities continue to lag behind age-level peers in academic achievement throughout their school years. However, many students with mild intellectual disabilities develop basic literacy skills and functional mathematics skills. For example, most students with mild intellectual disabilities learn basic computational skills and functional arithmetic skills related to money, time, and measurement. However, most of these students continue to have difficulty with more advanced skills related to content, such as mathematical reasoning and applying concepts to solve problems (Beirne-Smith et al., 2006).

It is noteworthy that delayed language development, which is characteristic of students with mild intellectual disabilities, also has a negative influence on academic achievement. The academic area in which language delay has the most detrimental effect is reading (Torgesen, 2000). While students who are mildly intellectually disabled and who are poor readers share a deficit in phonological language skills similar to other students with disabilities (e.g., students with LD) (Fletcher, Scott, Blair, & Bolger, 2004), students with intellectual disabilities are also often significantly delayed in general oral language skills. Thus, even if students with mild intellectual disabilities develop the ability to read individual words and strategies for reading comprehension, they will have difficulty comprehending what they have read because of weak verbal skills in areas such as vocabulary. Therefore, teachers need to provide these students with instruction to address their phonological weaknesses as well as a broader range of language skills (e.g., vocabulary development) (Torgesen, 2000).

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