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What is an Intellectual disability?

Intellectual disability refers to a general cognitive slowness with learning and adaptive skills. It can be seen from two different angels: the social perspective or the medical/pathology perspective. Source: NSW Council for Intellectual Disability

The term ‘intellectual disability' refers to a group of conditions caused by various genetic disorders and infections.

Characteristics of intellectual disability include problems such as:

  • An intellectual functioning or intelligence, which include the ability to learn, reason, problem solve, and other skills
  • Adaptive behaviour, which includes everyday social and life skills
  • Difficulties in communicating and retaining information.

Intellectual disability starts any time before a child turns 18 and is lifelong.

What causes intellectual disability?

As with all disability groups, there are many types of intellectual disability with varying degrees of severity. Some examples of intellectual disabilities include:

  • Down Syndrome
  • Fragile X Syndrome
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome
  • Angelman Syndrome
  • Rhett Syndrome

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 3% of Australians have an intellectual disability.; Around 1.8% of Australians have an intellectual disability which leads to severe or profound activity limitations


As each person is different, it is difficult to ascertain or explain why intellectual disability occurs. However, some of the causes of intellectual disability include:

  • An illness experienced by the mother during pregnancy, such as rubella
  • Exposure to alcohol or drugs during pregnancy
  • Problems that occur during pregnancy or during birth
  • Childhood illnesses that have lasting effects on development, such as meningitis
  • Some types of infection
  • An injury to the brain or head
  • Lack of oxygen during birth or as a result of an accident

If you have concerns about a family member or friend, contact you local doctor.

Further information can be found at:

NSW Council for Intellectual Disability -

Betterhealth Victoria -

The ARC - providing information and advocacy -

Intellectual Disability Rights Council -

Women’s and Children’s Health Network -

Association for Children with a Disability -