Primary Characteristics of Students with Intellectual Disabilities

By Zara Imran

Intellectual disabilities are referred to as ‘’mental retardation’’. It can be characterized by a lack of both, cognitive functioning and adaptive behavior. In view of some people, an intellectual disability can be diagnosed only on the basis of below-normal intelligence / IQ and the person with intellectual disabilities is unable to learn or to care for themselves, but the fact is that a person with an intellectual disability can have low IQ and to some extent problems in everyday functioning.

Most children with intellectual disabilities can learn accurately but as an adult lead partially independent lives. The child may also have difficulty with hearing, sight or speech. Here we discuss the primary characteristics of students with intellectual disabilities.

Academic Performance

Students identified with intellectual disabilities fail to keep up the grade level of peers in developing academic skills. These students are slow in learning to read and in learning basic math skills. These students also have delayed language skills which also affect other academic areas such as writing, spelling, and science. Taylor, Richards, & Brady, 2005

Cognitive Performance

Cognition covers three aspects such as attention, memory, and generalization.

  • Attention: Students have difficulty in attending such as they should be “Orienting to a task means they should focus on the direction of the task whereas they should have selective attention means that they should only focus on the relevant tasks not on unimportant tasks and sustained attention means that continue the task for the period of time. But students with intellectual difficulties can’t attain these attentions.
  • Memory: these students also have difficulty remembering the information, for example, they may have problems remembering the math facts or spellings or if they remember this information one day, they may forget it the next day.
  • Generalization: final area in which students with intellectual disabilities may have difficulty is to generalize the information to other material or settings for example he may learn a new word in one subject area but in learning the same word in another subject may have difficulty. Smith et al., 2004

Social Skills Performance

The cognitive characteristics of students with intellectual disabilities can also cause difficulty interacting socially. For example, a low level of cognitive development and slow language development can cause a student to have a problem in understanding verbal communications and expectations likewise difficulty in attention and difficulty with memory can also affect the social interactions of students in such a way that he may not able to attend the important parts of social interactions, maintaining attention, and holding important things which they observe in their short-term memory. Beirne-Smith et al., 2006.


  1. Excerpt from Special Education for Today’s Teachers: An Introduction, by M.S. Rosenberg, D.L. Westling, J. McLeskey, 2008 edition, p. 207-210.
  2. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2015.


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