Intellectual Disability


Intellectual disability (ID) describes a heterogeneous group of conditions characterized by low or very low intelligence and deficits in adaptive behaviors without reference to etiology. [Sattler: 1988] While there is no treatment for ID, some of the conditions causing it (e.g., metabolic errors or hypothyroidism) can be treated and much can be done to limit secondary disabilities, to optimize functional abilities, and to assist the affected child and his/her family in adapting to the condition.

Other Names & Coding

Mental retardation
Static encephalopathy
ICD-10 coding

F70, intellectual disability, mild

F71, intellectual disability, moderate

F72, intellectual disability, severe

F73, intellectual disability, profound

Coding for Intellectual Disability (! provides further coding details.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) [American: 2013] generally designates the same codes as ICD-10 does, but its publisher, the American Psychiatric Association, prohibits our including their codes or descriptions.


The prevalence of ID in the general population is approximately 1:100; prevalence for severe ID is approximately 6:1,000. [American: 2013]


Many etiologies for ID are genetic. When possible, all children with ID without a known etiology should have a genetic evaluation.


Measures of intellect and adaptive behavior are somewhat predictive of eventual ability to live independently. For instance, individuals with mild to moderate ID should become relatively self-sufficient with appropriate family and community support. Individuals with severe and profound ID will need a great deal of support and do not usually live independently. Individuals with severe and profound ID tend to have shortened life expectancies as well, often due to the conditions causing ID.

Practice Guidelines

Moeschler JB, Shevell M.
Comprehensive evaluation of the child with intellectual disability or global developmental delays.
Pediatrics. 2014;134(3):e903-18 (reaffirmed 2020). PubMed abstract / Full Text

Szymanski L, King BH.
Practice parameters for the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults with mental retardation and comorbid mental disorders. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Working Group on Quality Issues.
J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1999;38(12 Suppl):5S-31S. PubMed abstract

Roles of the Medical Home

A diagnosis of ID is important to allow the family to begin making realistic plans for the education and future of the child. The diagnosis also allows the child to qualify for early intervention, special educational services, and, depending on the financial status of the family, entitlement programs such as disability services.

The medical home can:
  • Schedule health maintenance visits frequently enough to be proactive about new issues.
  • Ensure that the family has access to reliable information, community services, and resources.
  • Coordinate care and interpret information or advice from specialists.
  • Facilitate access to private providers or other systems of care if the child does not quality for government or school sponsored services, such as OT, PT, or speech therapy.
  • Assess parental stress, sibling problems, and social supports during follow-up visits; referral to support organizations and agencies may be particularly useful if the family is headed toward a crisis.
  • Connect families with others in similar situations in order to provide support and alleviate the sense of isolation.
  • Ensure that children with ID are provided opportunities for socializing and recreation. (Programs for recreational and leisure opportunities are listed toward the bottom of the Intellectual Disability, Services & Other Resources section of the module.)

Clinical Assessment


Important steps in the clinical assessment of a child with ID include:
  1. Suspicion of ID, which is often prompted by parent interview and/or direct observation of the child, should be confirmed with norm-referenced testing for IQ and adaptive functioning. The Portal's issue page on Psychometric Testing (general) provides lists of possible tests for IQ/development, adaptive behavior, achievement, and behavior.
  2. Treatable diagnoses that might mimic ID, such as severe auditory or visual impairment or neurologic disorders, must be ruled out.
  3. Identification of the etiology, if possible, through medical history (including 3 generations) and/or physical exam (e.g., a large head circumference may indicate fragile X syndrome or distinctive facial features might suggest Cornelia de Lange syndrome). An etiology can be found in about 2/3 of individuals with severe ID, but in only about 1/3 of those with mild ID. A small number of etiologies for ID may be treatable. [Engbers: 2008] [Mueller: 2008] Knowing the cause can be helpful in determining prognosis and risk of recurrence in the family and for predicting the child's ability to live independently in the future.
  4. Determining the severity of ID, with psychometric and adaptive function testing can be helpful in prognosis for independent living.
  5. Determining the needs for educational interventions and support for the child and family, through testing and comprehensive evaluation by the school and/or community agencies and professionals.
Opinion in the literature is mixed regarding the earliest age at which a diagnosis of ID is reasonably possible. It is usually possible in the preschool years, earlier for more severe cases, but not reliably until age 5. [Shevell: 2003]

Pearls & Alerts for Assessment

Children with autism may have normal intelligence

IQ tests on children with autism may underestimate IQ because the testing is often language based.

Misdiagnosis of seizures possible

Although the clinician should be alert for seizures, physiological events, behaviors, and even syndrome features may be mistaken for seizures. [Chapman: 2011]

DD vs. ID

The term “developmental delay” (DD) is usually reserved for younger children (typically younger than 5 years), and the term “intellectual disability” (ID) is usually applied to older children when IQ testing is valid and reliable. Delays in development, especially those that are mild, may be transient and lack predictive reliability for ID or other developmental disabilities.


For the Condition

Developmental screening, an important component of routine well-child care, should identify many children with developmental delay (DD) early in life.


Presentation typically includes cognitive skills delay, language delay, and adaptive skills delay. Developmental delays vary depending on the etiology and degree of ID.

Clinical Classification

The severity of ID is classified by the following degrees of intellectual functioning:
  • Borderline
  • Mild
  • Moderate
  • Severe
  • Profound

Differential Diagnosis

Autism spectrum disorders, specific language problems, and hearing problems may be confused with ID in young children, or may coexist with ID. ID can also be confused with developmental delay or static encephalopathy.

ID should only be diagnosed when there is clear evidence that cognitive abilities and adaptive behavior are significantly below average and that, although the individual might make progress in learning, they will always be significantly below average. This excludes individuals with conditions that might be temporary (e.g., the convalescent period after a brain insult such as meningitis or trauma, the response to early neglect, or children soon after foreign adoption). It also excludes the very young where cognitive ability and adaptive behaviors are not easily measurable. This is especially true in mild cases, because children with mild developmental delay are more likely to "catch up" to their peers.

Medical Conditions Causing Condition

Out of the hundreds of known causes of ID, half are thought to be exogenous (e.g., prenatal exposure to infection or toxins); the other half are likely due to genetic causes. [Battaglia: 2003] When seeking the cause for a particular child, it is often useful to consider broad categories of etiologies, including:
  • Inherited/chromosomal: PKU, hypothyroidism, fragile X syndrome, Trisomy 21, tuberous sclerosis, autism. Approximately 15% of males with non-specific ID may have an X-linked syndrome. [Stevenson: 2009]
  • Factors associated with pregnancy: intrauterine infections, toxins (including drug and alcohol abuse, prescription drug effects), abnormal brain development (e.g., cortical dysplasia), and hypoxia/ischemia (placental insufficiency)
  • Birth-related hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, extreme prematurity
  • Post-natal infection, head injury, abuse/neglect, malnutrition, lead/mercury exposure
The likelihood of finding an etiology for ID in a given child is not correlated with the severity of ID. [Battaglia: 2003]

Comorbid & Secondary Conditions

Co-morbid conditions include Childhood Absence Epilepsy, Cerebral Palsy, anxiety disorders, oppositional behavior disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Autism Spectrum Disorder. [Oeseburg: 2011]

History & Examination

Since knowledge about genetic etiologies is increasing so rapidly, reconsideration of an inconclusive original diagnosis, or lack of etiologic diagnosis, is warranted. Periodic re-evaluation of development, behavior, intellect, vision, hearing, and adaptive functioning will guide ongoing interventions and anticipate evolving problems. If abilities seem to be deteriorating, further investigations are necessary and referrals to pediatric neurology and genetics are recommended.

Current & Past Medical History

Ask about decreased growth or overgrowth, infection, head injury, abuse/neglect, malnutrition, unusual eye movements, concern for seizures, motor abnormalities (asymmetric tone/strength/muscle use), social skills, lead/mercury exposure, hearing and vision problems, and previous testing.

Parents may not realize that sleep issues are potentially treatable and the medical home should asked about their child’s sleep habits, history of snoring, and any daytime sleepiness at well-child visits. The Sleep History Questionnaire (PDF Document 20 KB) has a printable sleep log and one page of mostly yes/no questions about sleep routines and behavior.

Family History

A family medical history (3 generations, if possible) may provide clues to etiology and prognosis. Family history should include ethnic background, metabolic diseases, parental consanguinity, relatives with autistic features, multiple miscarriages, or unexplained infant/childhood deaths. Attention should be paid to the sex of affected relatives because there are several X-linked ID syndromes.

Pregnancy/Perinatal History

Ask about:
  • Difficulty conceiving, intrauterine infections or maternal illness, toxins (including drug and alcohol abuse, prescription drug effects), abnormal brain development (e.g., cortical dysplasia), and hypoxia/ischemia (placental insufficiency)
  • Birth-related factors such as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy during labor (and Apgar scores) and extreme prematurity
  • Birth weight/height for evidence of placental insufficiency or a genetic syndrome
  • Prenatal screening or testing, type of delivery and why, weight gain and difficulty feeding during the first few weeks, and bonding/attachment

Developmental & Educational Progress

Ask about time of achievement of developmental milestones. Children with more severe ID are likely to have all developmental milestones delayed from an early age, whereas children with mild ID are more likely to display normal early milestones. In addition to asking the child and family directly, reports from early intervention or school including evaluations and report cards, are helpful to monitor progress in this area.

Ask about behavior problems and self-injurious behaviors; mental health problems are frequent in children and adolescents with ID.

Maturational Progress

Ask about signs of puberty when appropriate and the ability of the child and family to handle the changes appropriately.

Social & Family Functioning

Ask about family functioning, parental jobs, financial resources for caring for a child with ID, and family support systems. (The end of the Intellectual Disability, Services & Other Resources section has links to financial help, adaptive recreation, and other helpful services.)

Physical Exam


Observe behavior and interaction, including quality of eye contact, attention/focus, interaction, repetitive movements, hand flapping, or aggression.

Growth Parameters

Ht | Wt | OFC for deviations from typical growth charts, head shape, presence of fontanels (FTT, compare to parents), asymmetry?


Look for the presence of abnormal textures, hyper- or hypopigmentation, eczema, Wood's lamp findings, hemangiomata.


Note head size and shape. Look at facies - similar to family members? Look for epicanthal folds, ear position/shape/size, prominence of chin or forehead, size and shape of eyes, ears, mouth, philtrum. Check hair for abnormal texture or color. Check for caries and enamel defects. Children with ID may have difficulty with oral hygiene and may not have access to dentists comfortable with their care.




Size, structure


Look for single palmar creases, clinodactyly, size of hands/feet, nail abnormalities, presence of contractures, and hyperextensibility.

Neurologic Exam

Check for spasticity, tone, balance, coordination, dystonia, and chorea.


Sensory Testing

Hearing and vision testing is important for identifying any impairments, which are a common cause or contributor to ID. Periodic retesting is indicated, particularly if deterioration in function is noted.

Laboratory Testing

The percentage of people with identifiable metabolic disorders as of cause of ID ranges from 1%-5%. Although newborn screening identifies many of these disorders, further metabolic testing maybe necessary. [Engbers: 2008] Other signs/symptoms that might prompt targeted testing include: stigmata of hypothyroidism, seizures, lethargy, vomiting, abnormal urinary odors, and failure to thrive. Deterioration of a child's developmental status should prompt further testing as it may be suggestive of a degenerative disease. [Moeschler: 2014]


A brain MRI will identify an abnormality in about 40% of patients with specific findings, such as microcephaly or a focal neurologic abnormality; in the absence of clinical clues, the yield is only about 14%. When an etiology cannot be identified, an MRI may still be cost-effective as a once-in-a-lifetime test, particularly when results might be important in family planning and genetic counseling. The American Academy of Neurology and Child Neurology Society recommends neuro-imaging as part of an evaluation of the child with ID [Shevell: 2003], whereas the American College of Medical Genetics does not feel that neuroimaging should be considered "standard of care" in the absence of specific neurologic findings. [Curry: 1997] Others suggest MRI and magnetic resonance spectroscopy be performed in children with otherwise unexplained ID. [Battaglia: 2003]

MRI is preferred over CT in almost all cases (unless the examiner is looking for calcifications, as in congenital CMV). The risk of sedation for an MRI and the parents' desires should be considered, along with the potential helpfulness of the information gained.

EEG should be performed when clinical seizures or a seizure syndrome are suspected.

Skeletal survey, other imaging may be recommended as part of a genetics consultation.

Genetic Testing

Chromosomal microarray (CMA) is now considered a first-tier diagnostic test in all children with global developmental delay and/or ID, replacing karyotyping and FISH. This type of high-resolution analysis for small chromosomal deletions and duplications results in a diagnostic rate of about 12%, at least twice the rate of a standard karyotype. [Moeschler: 2008] High-resolution karyotyping should be used as a first test only when there is an obvious chromosomal syndrome (e.g., trisomy 21) or a family history of chromosomal rearrangements.

If no etiology is found on CMA, testing for fragile X syndrome, via an X-linked intellectual disability panel or MECP2, may be warranted even when the child does not fit the clinical syndrome, particularly if history or exam findings are suggestive of a genetic cause. [Curry: 1997] Genetic testing is best guided by a geneticist, but information about available tests for conditions associated with ID can be found at Genetic Disorders and ID (Genetic Testing Registry).

Medical home providers should work closely and communicate clearly with the consulting geneticist when interpreting CMA test results, particularly when variants of unknown significance are identified. [Moeschler: 2014] Findings may be pathogenic, benign, or of unknown significance.

Other Testing

A positive screen should lead to a confirmatory evaluation and, if significant developmental delay is found, full Psychometric Testing is performed. Testing strategies will depend on age and degree of developmental delay.

Norm-referenced testing for IQ and adaptive functioning (a.k.a. neuropsychological, neurocognitive or psychoeducational testing) is critical to confirm the diagnosis, provide some idea of the child's prognosis, guide therapeutic interventions, and a diagnostic workup in some cases. See the Intellectual Disability, Services & Other Resources section for details on neuropsychological testing resources.

A sleep study should be performed if clinically indicated.

Specialty Collaborations & Other Services

Once the diagnosis of developmental delay/ID is suspected, the medical home clinician should have the child tested by psychology (via the educational or medical systems), and then decide whether to refer to neurology, genetics, etc. based on the history and physical exam.

Pediatric Genetics (see NV providers [3])

When a diagnosis of ID is confirmed, a genetic evaluation is recommended. Since knowledge of new genetic syndromes and new genetic testing is evolving rapidly, consider periodic reassessment of the child with unknown etiology. Genetic counseling may also be appropriate for the family.

Pediatric Metabolics (see NV providers [0])

If a metabolic etiology is suspected, the child with ID should be evaluated by a metabolic geneticist. Additional metabolic laboratory studies/screening may be indicated.

Pediatric Neurology (see NV providers [6])

Children with specific neurologic problems, such as seizures, abnormal tone, motor asymmetry, or developmental regression, should be seen by neurology and followed as needed for ongoing management.

Pediatric Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (see NV providers [1])

Physiatrists may be helpful in directing services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and feeding management. They can also evaluate for needed adaptive equipment and recommend helpful programs available through the school system.

Pediatric Ophthalmology (see NV providers [6])

In addition to finding and treating visual impairment, a pediatric ophthalmologist may find etiologic clues (e.g., cherry red spot, papilledema or optic nerve pallor) from ophthalmologic exams.

Developmental - Behavioral Pediatrics (see NV providers [4])

Developmental pediatricians can offer a complete developmental evaluation and assist in coordinating services. They may also be helpful in periodically evaluating a child's developmental progress, guiding parental expectations, and establishing an ongoing plan for ever-changing educational needs.

General Counseling Services (see NV providers [172])

Periodic visits may be helpful for following progress and monitoring associated problems such as ADHD or mood disorders, which, if not treated, may hinder educational progress and lead to additional psychosocial barriers. Comprehensive assessment of the domains of intellectual, social, cognitive, behavioral, academic, and emotional functioning is helpful in identifying strengths and weaknesses, formulating a diagnosis, and implementing recommendations for interventions.

Psychiatry/Medication Management (see NV providers [39])

Consider referral if mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, are suspected; if there is a strong family history of psychiatric illness; or, for difficult behavior problems.

Neuropsychiatry/Neuropsychology (see NV providers [7])

Assessment of functioning is particularly important when the child has neurological symptoms, such as brain injury or seizures. This process helps identify learning challenges, describe communication styles, and summarize a child’s strengths and weaknesses for the purpose of formulating a diagnosis and implementing modifications/interventions.

Sleep Studies/Polysomnography (see NV providers [0])

A sleep study may be indicated in the setting of snoring, apnea spells, frequent nighttime awakenings, parasomnias, or excessive daytime sleepiness. While adults manifest fatigue by appearing tired, children can appear hyperactive or distracted.

Treatment & Management

Pearls & Alerts for Treatment & Management

Underlying condition can cause challenging behaviors

Check carefully for underlying medical conditions that may be causing challenging behaviors in individuals who may not be able to express their needs.

Perceived regression as child ages

The degree of ID is generally stable throughout life, although it may seem to be worsening as the child gets older and gaps in ability widen when compared with peers. Even children with profound ID may differ very little from their peers at 1 year of age, but are very different at age 10. Concern for regression, as opposed to stable disability, would be a reason to consider referral to a neurologist or developmental pediatrician to evaluate for a potential CNS or metabolic cause for dysfunction.


Development (general)

Developmental intervention should begin as soon as ID is suspected. Children 0-3 years of age may receive services from Early Intervention programs, and children over 3 are served by their local school districts. For some kinds of ID, special schools may also be available.

Specialty Collaborations & Other Services

Developmental - Behavioral Pediatrics (see NV providers [4])

Developmental pediatricians can periodically evaluate a child's developmental progress and determine an ongoing plan for educational needs.

Developmental Assessments (see NV providers [3])

Developmental evaluations assess a child for typical versus atypical development in multiple domains.

Early Intervention for Children with Disabilities/Delays (see NV providers [29])

Early Intervention programs are services to help identify and improve developmental outcomes in early childhood for babies and toddlers with ID or other disabilities.


The medical home should assist families of children with ID in working with preschool and school systems to ensure appropriate accommodations, reasonable goal setting, and optimal support. All schoolchildren with ID should have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that includes the child's education goals, which should be achieved in the least restrictive environment depending on the child's IQ level and social abilities. IEPs are best developed with input from all the relevant disciplines - psychology, special education, speech therapy, occupational therapy - as well as from the family, teachers, and physicians. See the Portal's Education & Schools section and for detailed information about school-based services, legislation, and collaborating with educators written for medical home providers. Also, see the Portal's page on Inclusion Models (general).

Specialty Collaborations & Other Services

School Districts (see NV providers [21])

School districts are the contact point for evaluation and determination of services for children who qualify for an IEP. Typically, school districts provide services for eligible children ages 3-21.

Mental Health/Behavior

Many children with ID will also have a psychiatric diagnosis. The diagnoses are similar to those found in typically developing children (affective disorders, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.), although they may be harder to diagnose as the individual’s language skills are often decreased. A diagnosis might, therefore, need to be based on "observable behavioral symptoms.” [Szymanski: 1999] Behavior problems should be actively explored because parents may not raise these issues within the medical home.

Behavior problems, especially aggression directed toward self or others, can cause tremendous difficulties for families. Problems with behavior often increase exponentially with adolescence. Self-injurious behaviors can include individuals hitting and biting themselves or causing themselves to gag, head banging, and chewing on extremities. In children without good communication skills, rule out potential medical causes of new self-injurious behaviors (such as dental caries, gastroesophageal reflux, ear infections, etc.) and environmental causes (e.g., a new aide at school, a new sibling, etc.) Social isolation caused by ID may add to the incidence of affective disorders. If these factors are ruled out, behavioral management should be tried.

Although use of antipsychotics to manage aggression is controversial [Tsiouris: 2010], management will generally involve medication and behavioral management techniques. The medical home should not be hesitant to use medications, even if temporary, to help manage difficult behavior or situations that need immediate help. Medications may include antipsychotics, atypical antipsychotics, serotonin specific reuptake inhibitors, mood stabilizers, benzodiazepines, stimulants, and clonidine. Risperidone may be especially helpful in these children and adolescents, and has been approved by the FDA for this use. [Shea: 2004] Medications should be started at low doses and raised very gradually. A referral to a child psychiatrist familiar with children with ID can help with this process. If access to psychiatry is not possible, consider a phone consultation if not familiar with medications for problem behavior.

Evaluating sustained and focused attention and impulse control is important, since treating attention problems behaviorally and/or pharmacologically might maximize the child's potential by helping him/her to be more cognitively "available" for instruction and intervention. Such evaluation should be performed by specialists and may include assessment of speech, language, gross and fine motor development, social and emotional responsiveness, play imitation, non-verbal communication, attention and impulse control, intelligence, learning abilities, and more. An interdisciplinary approach is recommended for management, including professionals from social work, child psychology, and child psychiatry, in addition to primary care physicians and educators when possible. See the Portal's Behavioral Medication Information and Aggression and Self-Injurious Behavior (ddhealthinfo) for more information.

Specialty Collaborations & Other Services

Psychiatry/Medication Management (see NV providers [39])

Consider a referral to child psychiatry, particularly if medication is being considered.

Pediatric Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (see NV providers [1])

PM&R physicians may have expertise in behavior management.

General Counseling Services (see NV providers [172])

Therapists may help the child and family with behavior management, counseling, and support.

Social Workers (see NV providers [7])

Social workers may help the child and family with counseling and assist with access to mental health resources.


Children with ID, particularly those with autistic features, often have great difficulty maintaining a normal sleep schedule. Sleep disruption may cause additional attention and learning problems for the child and disrupt the entire family. Sleep problems in children with ID may not fit the common sleep disruption patterns seen in typically developing children and they may be difficult to manage. Asking parents to keep a sleep record for one to several weeks may help in understanding the obstacles. A printable sleep record and 1-page questionnaire can be found at Sleep History Questionnaire (PDF Document 20 KB).

If a child with ID has difficulty sleeping, look for signs and symptoms of underlying medical problems (e.g., gastroesophageal reflux, dental caries) and obstructive sleep apnea (obesity, large tonsils, loud snoring). A sleep study may lead to diagnosis of a causative factor, such as seizures, apnea,, or restless leg syndrome, which have potential treatments. Nonspecific treatments, such as melatonin or sleep medications, may also be useful. See the Portal's Sleep Medications and Sleep Issues for further information.

Specialty Collaborations & Other Services

Pediatric Sleep Medicine (see NV providers [0])

Sleep evaluations and treatment with sleep hygiene methods, breathing devices, and medications may be helpful.

Pediatric Otolaryngology (see NV providers [5])

Surgery may be necessary if adenoids and tonsils are causing obstructive sleep apnea.


Poor oral health can lead to pain, difficulty eating, sleep disturbance, and decreased self-esteem, all of which can have a dramatic impact on an individual's quality of life. Dental caries and periodontal disease are among the most common secondary conditions affecting people with ID. Although individuals with ID develop cavities at about the same rate as typically developing children, they are less likely to have them treated and are more likely to develop gingivitis and other periodontal disorders. [Anders: 2010]

Two subgroups at especially high risk for oral health problems are people with Down syndrome and people unable to cooperate for routine dental care. [Anders: 2010] Children with genetic syndromes or other diagnoses that are known to be associated with ID have a relatively high incidence of enamel hypoplasia and delayed eruption. Children with ID may have problems with tongue-thrust and bruxism and may demonstrate oral self-injurious behavior. The medical home should inquire about dental problems and refer to dentists comfortable with this population. Oral Care for People with Disabilities (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research) provides information for people of all ages with disabilities and dental care.

Specialty Collaborations & Other Services

General Dentistry (see NV providers [27])

These dental providers have expressed an interest in caring for children with special health care needs and may help patients except routine care, treat issues related to underlying congenital or developmental anomalies, and treat periodontal disease.

Pediatric Dentistry (see NV providers [29])

Children with ID should be followed by a pediatric dentist from early in life. These dentists have formal training in pediatric dentistry, including those children with special health care needs.


Obesity is a significant health risk in individuals with ID, particularly as they reach adolescence. This risk increases with age.

Specialty Collaborations & Other Services

Nutrition Assessment Services (see NV providers [14])

The individual and his/her family may be helped by a referral to a nutritionist in the childhood years, before this becomes an ongoing problem


The medical home should discuss sexuality and reproduction with adolescents with ID in a manner that is appropriate to their cognitive level and their parents' values. Children and youth with ID often receive inadequate information about maturation and sex. Barriers include:
  • Negative attitudes about the sexuality of these individuals [McCabe: 1993]
  • The assumption that teens with disabilities do not need this information
  • The lack of available sex education specific to people with disabilities
  • The presence of intellectual impairment that might complicate understanding of sex education material
  • Concerns about sexual exploitation in this population, as individuals with ID are more likely to be abused than those without ID [Mansell: 1998]
  • Body image/self-esteem concerns on the part of the adolescents
With onset of menses, adolescent girls with ID may experience difficulties managing hygiene and experience feelings of dysphoria/irritability/cramping, or heavy periods. Traditionally, Depo-Provera has been used to suppress menstruation, but it may be associated with decreased bone mineralization. [Walsh: 2008] [Tolaymat: 2007] [Kaunitz: 2008] Skipping placebos when taking oral contraceptives may be successful for many adolescents, although spotting often occurs during the initial 6-month period. Intrauterine devices that release small amounts of progesterone locally may also be an option. For a full discussion, see Sexuality and People with Disabilities (PDF Document 257 KB).

Specialty Collaborations & Other Services

Gynecology: Pediatric/Adolescent; Special Needs (see NV providers [0])

Providers on this list have expressed interest in caring for girls and adolescents with special health care needs.


Start transition planning early and include discussions about financial planning, how the individual will support him/herself, and where the individual will live. Assuring access to social security income and Medicaid can be critical – families should be encouraged to use a financial planner or lawyer familiar with individuals with disability. If necessary, guardianship will need to be applied for when the individual turns 18. Further information can be found at Transitions (National Center for Medical Home Implementation), A Guide for Health Care Providers: Transition Planning for Adolescents with Special Health Care Needs and Disabilities, and the Portal's Transition to Adulthood section.

Issues Related to Intellectual Disability

Clinical Assessment

Psychometric Testing


Inclusion Models

Mental Health/Behavior

Behavioral Medication Information

Ask the Specialist

Will insurance pay for genetic testing?

Not all health plans in the US will cover genetic testing, regardless of who orders it or the nature of the encounter during which it is ordered (i.e. inpatient vs. outpatient).

Should I order the genetic testing or wait until patient is seen by genetics?

In a nondysmorphic patient with GDD/ID of unknown etiology, chromosomal microarray should be performed. Patients/families may want to check with their insurance company to see if coverage is at all dependent on who orders the testing. Any abnormalities should be reviewed with the help of a medical geneticist.

Should I perform imaging prior to consulting neurology or a developmental pediatrician?

Yes, particularly in the setting of abnormal head size, focal findings on neurologic exam, extrapyramidal signs, intractable epilepsy, or focal seizures. [Moeschler: 2014] In a patient <8 years of age who would need sedation in order to have imaging performed, it is reasonable to consult neurology first.

Resources for Clinicians

On the Web

Information that is more specific may be available when the etiology for ID is known.

PubMed search for intellectual disability in children, last 2 years.

Developmental Disabilities Information (
Information and resources about developmental disabilities for clinicians that includes clinical practice considerations for related conditions and information about related issues (communication, dental, mental health, CAM); University of California San Diego, School of Medicine.

Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (AAP)
Information for professionals interested in child development and behavior. Contains practice management resources, upcoming educational events, relevant policy statements, and high-quality links; American Academy of Pediatrics.

Genetic Disorders and ID (Genetic Testing Registry)
List of disorders that often result in ID and direct links to phenotype-gene relationship and clinical synopsis on Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) List of disorders that often result in ID and direct links to phenotype-gene relationship and clinical synopsis on Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) and GeneReview.

Genetics in Primary Care Institute (AAP)
Contains health supervision guidelines and other useful resources for the care of children with genetic disorders; American Academy of Pediatrics.

Helpful Articles

PubMed search for intellectual disability in children, last 2 years.

Battaglia A, Carey JC.
Diagnostic evaluation of developmental delay/mental retardation: An overview.
Am J Med Genet C Semin Med Genet. 2003;117(1):3-14. PubMed abstract

Nevels RM, Dehon EE, Alexander K, Gontkovsky ST.
Psychopharmacology of aggression in children and adolescents with primary neuropsychiatric disorders: a review of current and potentially promising treatment options.
Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2010;18(2):184-201. PubMed abstract

van Karnebeek CD, Stockler S.
Treatable inborn errors of metabolism causing intellectual disability: a systematic literature review.
Mol Genet Metab. 2012;105(3):368-81. PubMed abstract

Clinical Tools

Assessment Tools/Scales

Ages and Stages Questionnaire: Developmental (ASQ-3)
Parent-completed, age-specific questionnaires that screen for developmental delays in children between 1 month and 5½ years old; available for purchase.

Parent's Evaluation of Developmental Status (PEDS) site
PEDS and PEDS:DM provide 5-minute screenings, longitudinal surveillance, and triage for developmental as well as behavioral/social-emotional/mental health problems. Can be completed by parent self-report, interview, or administered directly to children; available for a fee.

Questionnaires/Diaries/Data Tools

Sleep History Questionnaire (PDF Document 20 KB)
A 14-day sleep tracker and 1-page questionnaire about sleep routines and behavior.

Patient Education & Instructions

Intellectual Disability Fact Sheet (English & Spanish) (CDC)
One-page fact sheet for families who may be concerned that their child has intellectual disability; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Resources for Patients & Families

Information on the Web

Financing Your Child's Healthcare (Medical Home Portal)
Information, services, and resources that may help offset some of the medical costs of caring for your child with special health care needs.

Care Notebook (MHP)
The care notebook helps keep track of appointments, resources, labs, medications, tests, care providers, and more. Download the complete notebook, compile in your own binder, or download separate forms; Medical Home Portal.

Forms for Education
Descriptions and links to forms that can be adapted for states and Local Education Authorities (LEAs), usually school districts, or charter schools. Topics include evaluation and service recommendations, special dietary needs, medication administration, and authorization to release information; Medical Home Portal.

A Family Handbook on Future Planning (ARC)
Helps families develop a plan that provides personal, financial, and legal protections for their children with cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities after the parents either die or can no longer provide care; a publication of The Arc of the United States and the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) on Aging with Developmental Disabilities.

Intellectual Disability (MedlinePlus)
Overview of the causes, symptoms, and treatment of ID; from the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health.

Learn the Signs. Act Early (CDC)
Offers many tools, videos, lists, learning materials, and an app to track a child’s developmental milestones (ages 2 months to 5 years) and act if concerned about progress; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

National & Local Support

The Arc
A national, community-based organization advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

Center for Parent Information and Resources
A large resource library related to children with disabilities. Locate organizations and agencies within each state that address disability-related issues.


Clinical Trials in Intellectual Disabilities (
Compilation of clinical trials related to Intellectual Disabilities in children; from the National Institutes of Health

Services for Patients & Families in Nevada (NV)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: May 2009; last update/revision: June 2015
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Lynne M. Kerr, MD, PhD
Reviewers: Meghan Candee, MD
Chuck Norlin, MD


American Psychiatric Association.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5.
Fifth ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. 978-0-89042-554-1

American Psychiatric Association: DSM-5 Task Force.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Fifth ed. The American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.

Anders PL, Davis EL.
Oral health of patients with intellectual disabilities: a systematic review.
Spec Care Dentist. 2010;30(3):110-7. PubMed abstract

Battaglia A, Carey JC.
Diagnostic evaluation of developmental delay/mental retardation: An overview.
Am J Med Genet C Semin Med Genet. 2003;117(1):3-14. PubMed abstract

Chapman M, Iddon P, Atkinson K, Brodie C, Mitchell D, Parvin G, Willis S.
The misdiagnosis of epilepsy in people with intellectual disabilities: a systematic review.
Seizure. 2011;20(2):101-6. PubMed abstract

Curry CJ, Stevenson RE, Aughton D, Byrne J, Carey JC, Cassidy S, Cunniff C, Graham JM Jr, Jones MC, Kaback MM, Moeschler J, Schaefer GB, Schwartz S, Tarleton J, Opitz J.
Evaluation of mental retardation: recommendations of a Consensus Conference: American College of Medical Genetics.
Am J Med Genet. 1997;72(4):468-77. PubMed abstract / Full Text
A consensus statement regarding a rational clinical approach to a child with mental retardation including history, physical exam and recommended testing.

Engbers HM, Berger R, van Hasselt P, de Koning T, de Sain-van der Velden MG, Kroes HY, Visser G.
Yield of additional metabolic studies in neurodevelopmental disorders.
Ann Neurol. 2008;64(2):212-7. PubMed abstract

Kaunitz AM, Arias R, McClung M.
Bone density recovery after depot medroxyprogesterone acetate injectable contraception use.
Contraception. 2008;77(2):67-76. PubMed abstract

Mansell S, Sobsey D, Moskal R.
Clinical findings among sexually abused children with and without developmental disabilities.
Ment Retard. 1998;36(1):12-22. PubMed abstract

McCabe MP.
Sex education programs for people with mental retardation.
Ment Retard. 1993;31(6):377-87. PubMed abstract

Moeschler JB.
Genetic evaluation of intellectual disabilities.
Semin Pediatr Neurol. 2008;15(1):2-9. PubMed abstract

Moeschler JB, Shevell M.
Comprehensive evaluation of the child with intellectual disability or global developmental delays.
Pediatrics. 2014;134(3):e903-18 (reaffirmed 2020). PubMed abstract / Full Text
An AAP Clinical Report that provides guidance for primary care clinicians assisting families in preparing for a genetic evaluation; reaffirmed 2020.

Mueller S, Sherr EH.
The importance of metabolic testing in the evaluation of intellectual disability.
Ann Neurol. 2008;64(2):113-4. PubMed abstract

Nevels RM, Dehon EE, Alexander K, Gontkovsky ST.
Psychopharmacology of aggression in children and adolescents with primary neuropsychiatric disorders: a review of current and potentially promising treatment options.
Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2010;18(2):184-201. PubMed abstract

Oeseburg B, Dijkstra GJ, Groothoff JW, Reijneveld SA, Jansen DE.
Prevalence of chronic health conditions in children with intellectual disability: a systematic literature review.
Intellect Dev Disabil. 2011;49(2):59-85. PubMed abstract

Sattler, J.
Assessment of Children.
Third Edition ed. San Diego: Jerome M. Sattler Publisher; 1988. 9780961820978

Shea S, Turgay A, Carroll A, Schulz M, Orlik H, Smith I, Dunbar F.
Risperidone in the treatment of disruptive behavioral symptoms in children with autistic and other pervasive developmental disorders.
Pediatrics. 2004;114(5):e634-41. PubMed abstract

Shevell M, Ashwal S, Donley D, Flint J, Gingold M, Hirtz D, Majnemer A, Noetzel M, Sheth RD.
Practice parameter: evaluation of the child with global developmental delay: report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and The Practice Committee of the Child Neurology Society.
Neurology. 2003;60(3):367-80. PubMed abstract / Full Text

Stevenson RE, Schwartz CE.
X-linked intellectual disability: unique vulnerability of the male genome.
Dev Disabil Res Rev. 2009;15(4):361-8. PubMed abstract

Szymanski L, King BH.
Practice parameters for the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults with mental retardation and comorbid mental disorders. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Working Group on Quality Issues.
J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1999;38(12 Suppl):5S-31S. PubMed abstract
A review of mental health disorders in the DD/MR population. Although possibly more frequent in this population, psychiatric disorders are essentially the same as in normally developing children; however, behavioral observations are very important due to decreased verbal skills in this population.

Tolaymat LL, Kaunitz AM.
Long-acting contraceptives in adolescents.
Curr Opin Obstet Gynecol. 2007;19(5):453-60. PubMed abstract

Tsiouris JA.
Pharmacotherapy for aggressive behaviours in persons with intellectual disabilities: treatment or mistreatment?.
J Intellect Disabil Res. 2010;54(1):1-16. PubMed abstract

Walsh JS, Eastell R, Peel NF.
Effects of Depot medroxyprogesterone acetate on bone density and bone metabolism before and after peak bone mass: a case-control study.
J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008;93(4):1317-23. PubMed abstract

van Karnebeek CD, Stockler S.
Treatable inborn errors of metabolism causing intellectual disability: a systematic literature review.
Mol Genet Metab. 2012;105(3):368-81. PubMed abstract