Intellectual Disability and Specific Learning Disorders

Frustrated child at school

It can be difficult to understand all the different technical language that is used within the mental health field. If terms are not explained properly there can be confusion around what the terms mean, what treatment is best and how best to support someone. Two diagnoses which often get confusing are an Intellectual Disability and a Specific Learning Disorder. The reason for this is that it is common for both of these diagnoses to become noticeable and be diagnosed at school age. Each diagnosis has it’s own set of criteria which distinguish it from the other and each have varying options for treatment and intervention. It can also be tough to know where to go to seek help and so it is important to know what your options are for assessment and diagnosis.

Intellectual Disability

It is important to know the main criteria that would lead to a diagnosis of an Intellectual Disability or ID. An individual must have deficits in intellectual functioning. This is determined by using an assessment that measures an individual’s IQ. If their IQ is below 70 (the low to very low ranges of IQ) than this would fit that criteria. The individual must also have deficits in adaptive functioning. Adaptive functioning includes areas such as communication, school/work functioning, social skills, and independence at home and in the community. Basically, can they complete everyday activities that we would expect a person of their age to be able to do. This would also be assessed and would meet criteria if it were significantly lower than expected for their age. If both of the above occur this would lead to being diagnosed. It may present as difficulties at school such as slower learning in all areas, difficulties completing tasks, poor memory, difficulty with complex tasks, difficulty with multiple instructions and challenging behaviours. It is common for this to become noticeable in preschool and primary school. A diagnosis of an ID would not be given until the age of 6 or older. Although these deficits may be present in individuals prior to age 6, early intervention may be required to determine if improvements can occur.

This diagnosis can be broken down in 4 levels of severity:

  • Mild – IQ 50-69
  • Moderate – IQ 35-49
  • Severe – IQ 20-34
  • Profound – IQ less than 20

Specific Learning Disorder

This diagnosis can be separated into 3 areas:

  • DYSLEXIA (reading) - refers to the difficulty with reading. People with dyslexia have difficulty connecting letters they see on a page with the sounds they make. As a result, reading becomes a slow, effortful and not a fluent process for them.
  • DYSCALCULIA (maths) - used to describe difficulties learning number related concepts or using the symbols and functions to perform math calculations. Problems with math can include difficulties with number sense, memorizing math facts, math calculations, math reasoning and math problem solving.
  • DYSGRAPHIA (writing) - used to describe difficulties with putting one’s thoughts on to paper. Problems with writing can include difficulties with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and handwriting.

This can be diagnosed by using an assessment to measure an individual’s knowledge in each of the above areas. The individual needs to have difficulties in one of these areas for at least 6 months despite targeted help (difficulty reading, difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read, difficulty with spelling, difficulty with written expression, difficulty understanding number concepts, number facts or calculation, difficulty with mathematical reasoning). Their skills also need to be well below what we would expect for their age and these difficulties need to be present at school age.

child frustrated

Where do I start?

If there are concerns about a child or young person it could be a good idea to talk to their school. Teachers and school counsellors are good resources to help provide support or assist you with best next steps. Linking in with a psychologist can give you access to the assessments needed to give critical information for diagnosis. These assessments may not be consistent across different organisations as there are a variety of assessments that can be used. During the assessment process a psychologist will collect information from lots of different sources to help determine diagnosis.

Do I need a diagnosis?

It is important to say that each diagnosis can occur separately. To have one does not mean to have the other i.e. an individual can have an Intellectual Disability and not have a Specific Learning Disorder and vice versa. Receiving either diagnosis can be helpful for an individual as it will assist with increasing support for that person. This could be in the form of extra help at school in the classroom, additional learning outside of school, funding for therapeutic/learning needs through schemes such as NDIS or alterations to your workplace.

Page Last Updated: 08 September 2021

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