The term ‘intellectual disability’ does not describe any particular disability. Instead, it describes a collection of different types of cognitive impairment and syndromes, brought about by numerous possible causal factors.
Aside from IQ testing, which is not a reliable indicator of a person’s overall capacity, there are a number of non-clinical indicators that help to identify whether a person has an intellectual disability. Some common areas of daily functioning that people with intellectual disability experience difficulty with include:
- Reading and writing
- Identifying money values or calculating change
- Finding their own phone number in the telephone directory
- Giving directions to a place they would be expected to know (they may be able to take someone there, but not give directions).
Intellectual disability might also be indicated by a range of difficulties in a person’s communication, such as:
- Having a restricted vocabulary
- Having a short attention span
- Being easily distracted
- Experiencing difficulty in understanding questions
- Responding to questions either inappropriately or with inconsistent answers
- Experiencing memory difficulties
- Showing difficulty with abstract thinking and reasoning.
An individual’s behaviour can be a useful a indicator of intellectual disability – including being over-friendly, being eager to please, or acting in a way that is appropriate for a much younger person. Social information about the person and their life experiences may indicate intellectual disability. For example, many people with intellectual disability receive the disability pension, or attended a special school or a special class at school. A number of people with intellectual disability find employment in sheltered workshops or attend work training programs.
If there is doubt about whether a client has an intellectual disability, counsellors can ask questions about the person’s current life circumstances and past life experiences – particularly during the initial engagement and assessment process. Relevant questions may include:
- Where did you go to school?
- Did you get any extra help at school?
- How are you with reading and writing?
- What do you do during the day? Do you go to work?
- What types of things do you do for fun? To relax?
- Where do you live? Do you live with other people?
- Do you get a pension from Centrelink?
The overall picture painted by the responses to these questions should help practitioners to assess reasonably well whether or not a client has an intellectual disability. It is obviously easier to recognise more severe intellectual disability than ‘mild‘ or ‘borderline’ levels. Yet it is crucial that people with less severe ‘categories’ of intellectual disability are recognised and provided with appropriate support, particularly as they are likely to hide their individual needs to avoid stigmatisation. People with ‘mild’ or ‘borderline’ intellectual disability are likely to be just as vulnerable as people with more severe intellectual disability, but in different ways. (For more information, see the section: ‘Definitions of intellectual disability’.)