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Support & Help for Children with Intellectual Disabilities

C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Intellectual disabilities (formerly mental retardation) have many causes. As such, these disabilities are individual and unique to each person. Medical treatment alone is inadequate to address the varied types of difficulties. Medical treatment may be helpful and necessary for treating some of the underlying medical causes and symptoms. However, medical treatment alone cannot address the intellectual and functional challenges that define these disabilities.

Intellectual disabilities are not illnesses. As such, there are no treatments per se. Instead, children are assisted to achieve their full potential so they may function in an optimal manner. In this respect, we may speak of supportive rehabilitation, rather than of treatment.

Supportive rehabilitation begins with an individualized support plan (ISP). The first goal of the ISP is to assess the needs and abilities of each child. The second goal is to formulate a plan to strengthen abilities while reducing the impact of limitations. The main objective of the ISP is to create a match between a child's environment, and their abilities.

ISPs are most helpful when they are developed collaboratively. Family members and the child with the disability should form a partnership with a team of professionals. This team includes psychologists and other behavioral specialists, health care providers, speech and occupational therapists, educational and skills training specialists, service coordination specialists (case managers), and social workers.

For pre-school children, the ISP will include a variety of supports for the family and the child. Early intervention is crucial in order to ensure the child's optimal development. Intervention programs are offered beginning as young as birth through two years of age. These early intervention programs serve several purposes. First, they inform parents and primary caregivers about early child development. Second, they provide activities that help children to grow and learn. Third, they teach families how to help their children maximize their potential.

For school-aged children, intellectual challenges are addressed via an individualized educational plan (IEP). The IEP is developed with input from many sources. This includes educational professionals, social services professionals, the student, and the student's family. Each IEP outlines goals for the student to achieve. Then specialized curriculums are devised to achieve those goals. The curriculum is designed around each child's needs and abilities. The IEPs stress the age appropriate skills needed for everyday life.

The severity of the child's disability is carefully considered when developing the IEP. The learning environment is crucial for maximizing every child's success. Therefore, school placement decisions are carefully considered. The severity of the disability influences placement decisions. Student and family preferences are also important. Some children with mild intellectual disabilities (roughly 75-85%) can attend a regular school with additional learning support. They will attend regular classes most of the day. One or two classes will be in a learning support classroom. There, students receive one-on-one attention to help them to achieve the goals of the IEP. Other students may need to spend the majority of their school day receiving specialized educational services.

A traditional school is not always beneficial. Some students with more severe disabilities may benefit from a more specialized school. Approximately 15-25% of children with intellectual disabilities require more specialized education. These alternative schools are staffed by highly trained teachers and therapists. These alternative schools are part of the public school system and are free of charge. There are also private schools that offer these specialized services. However, these private schools charge tuition.

More complete and detailed information can be found in our Intellectual Disabilities Topic Center.