Understanding Persons with Intellectual Disabilities

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This research lookedpaper looks at the different disabilities that affect students in the classroom, their causes, and characteristics.. These disabilities include d mental retardation, traumatic brain injuries, autism, severe disabilities, and deaf and blindness. When teachers understand these disabilities better they can better serve these students in their classrooms.

Understanding Persons with Intellectual Disabilities

“Today, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates, nearly 6 million of the nation’s schoolchildren, ages 6 to 21, receive special education services under Part B of the IDEA. Sixty-seven percent of those students have specific learning disabilities or speech or language impairments. Fewer than 12 percent are diagnosed with significant cognitive disabilities, such as mental retardation or traumatic brain injury” (Special Education, 2004, p.1). The students that are being served have varying mental and physical disabilities that affect they way they learn. Some of these disabilities include mental retardation, traumatic brain injuries, autism, severe disabilities, deafness, and blindness. There are many different characteristics and causes of these disabilities and educators need to understand them to better prepare themselves to be an effective educator. Read also about the role of cognition in learning

Mental Retardation

According to the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, mental retardation is defined as a, “Level of intellectual functioning that is well below average and results in significant limitations in the person’s daily living skills” (Mental Retardation, 2011, p. 1). It can also be said to be an intellectual disability, caused by a birth defect that gives the carrier of the defect lifelong problems. Some of these birth defects can affect the nervous system, the brain, and spinal cord. Examples of these defects include Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome. They also cause learning and behavioral disorders like Autism. They can also include sensory-related disabilities that cause vision, hearing, and sight problems; metabolic disorders that affect how your body processes materials needed to function; and degenerative disorders like Rett syndrome, which becomes apparent when children are older. This causes physical and mental problems (NIH, 2011, p. 1).

Even though mental retardation is caused by a birth defect, parents might not know for sure if their child is disabled until the child’s motor skills, language skills, and self-help skills do not seem to be developing, or are developing at a far slower rate than the child’s peers. Failure to adjust to new situations and grow intellectually may become apparent early in a child’s life. In the case of mild retardation, these failures may not become recognizable until school age or later. Mental retardation varies widely, from profoundly impaired to mild or borderline retardation (Kaneshiro & Zieve, 2009, p. 1).

“Mental retardation can be caused by any condition which impairs development of the brain before birth, during birth or in the childhood years. Several hundred causes have been discovered, but in about one-third of the people affected, the cause remains unknown. The three major known causes of mental retardation are Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and fragile X” (Leibert, 1997, p.1). Other causes of mental retardation can include: infections, chromosomal abnormalities, environmental, genetic abnormalities and inherited metabolic disorders, metabolic, nutritional, toxic, trauma, and the unexplained.

Having a shortfall in cognitive functioning and learning styles are characteristic of children with mental retardation. These characteristics can include poor memory, slow learning rates, attention problems, difficulty generalizing what they have learned, and lack of motivation (Heward, 2011, p.1).

Traumatic Brain Injury

In the United States, 1.4 million Americans have a brain injury every year (Brian & Spinal Cord.org, 2011, p. 1). According to The Mayo Clinic, “A traumatic brain injury is damage to the brain resulting in an injury” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011, p. 1). Heward (2009) states that a traumatic brain injury is,

“An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s education performance. Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech” (p.459 – 460).

Traumatic brain injury usually results from a violent blow or jolt to the head that causes the brain to collide with the inside of the skull” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011, p. 1). There are two different kinds of traumatic brain injuries, the open head injury and the closed head injury. The open head injury occurs when the skull is penetrated by a bullet or a sharp object. The closed head injury occurs when the head hits an object that doesn’t move and the brain hits the inside of the cranium (Heward, 2009, p. 460).

According to Heward (2009) there are many different signs and effects of traumatic brain injury. These signs and effects can be broken up into three different categories, physical and sensory changes, cognitive changes and academic problems, and social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Some of the physical and sensory changes that can be present when someone has a traumatic brain injury include:

*”Chronic headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, nausea

*Vision and hearing impairments

*Alterations in the sense of taste, touch, and smell

*Sleep problems

*Stress-related disorders

*Poor body temperature regulation

*Recurrent seizure activity

*Poor coordination and balance

*Reduced speed of motor performance and precision of movement” (Heward, 2009, pg. 463).

Cognitive changes and academic problems that may be present in someone with a traumatic brain injury include:

*”Difficulty keeping up with discussions, instructional presentations, note taking

*Difficulty concentrating or attending to the task at hand

*Difficulty making transitions

*Inability to organize work and environment

*Problems in planning, organizing, pacing tasks and activities

*Extremely sensitive to distractions

*Tendency to perseverate; inflexible in thinking

*Impairments in receptive oral language

*Inability to perceive voice inflections or nonverbal cues

*Impairments in reading comprehension

*Impairments in expressive oral or written language” (Heward, 2009, pg. 463).

Social, emotional, and behavioral problems that may be present in someone with a traumatic brain injury include:

*”Chronically agitated, irritable, restless, or anxious

*Increased aggressiveness

*Impaired ability to self-manage; lowered impulse control; poor anger control

*Difficulty dealing with change; poor coping strategies

*May overestimate own ability

*Decreased insight into self and others; reduced judgment

*Decreased frustration tolerance; frequent temper outbursts and overreactions to events

*May talk compulsively and excessively

*Inability to take cues from the environment” (Heward, 2009, pg. 463).


According to the National Institute of Health (2011), “Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills” (p. 1). Heward (2009) states that autism is, “A neurobehavioral syndrome marked by qualitative impairments of social interaction and communication, and by restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior” (p. 257).

Causes of autism are still being researched, but there are probably a combination of factors that lead to autism. “Given the complexity of the disease, the range of autistic disorders and the fact that no two children with autism are alike, there are likely many causes” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011, p. 1). Genetic problems and environmental factors seem to play an involvement in causing autism, but to what extent is still unknown. In regards to genetic problems,

“A number of genes appear to be involved in autism. Some may make a child more susceptible to the disorder; others affect brain development or the way brain cells communicate. Still others may determine the severity of symptoms. Each problem in genes may account for a small number of cases, but taken together, the influence of genes may be substantial. Some genetic problems seem to be inherited, whereas others happen spontaneously” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011, p. 1).

In regards to environmental factors,

“Many health problems are due to both genetic and environmental factors, and this is likely the case with autism as well. Researchers are currently exploring whether viral infections and air pollutants, for example, play a role in triggering autism” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011, p. 1).

The characteristics of autism are on a wide spectrum because some of the children are severely affected while others are barely affected. Characteristics include impaired social relationships, communication and language deficits, intellectual functioning, unusual responsiveness to sensory stimuli, insistence on sameness and perseveration, ritualistic and unusual behavior patterns, severe problem behavior, and positive attributes and strengths of students with autism.

Severe Disabilities

Severe disabilities are characterized as children, “With significant disabilities in intellectual, physical, and/or social functioning” (Heward, 2009, p. 453). However, there isn’t one single right definition of severe disabilities. Usually, this includes students that have severe mental retardation, have multiple disabilities, deaf-blindness, severe emotional disturbance, and severe disabilities or health impairments.

Causes of severe disabilities can encompass everything from genetics to the environment. Sometimes there are just no explanations for why someone has a disability.

Characteristics of students with severe disabilities include social development, cognitive development, language development, and motor development. In regards to social development, students with severe disabilities find it difficult to interact with others or may be oblivious to others, neither initiate or respond to interactions, have a difficulty performing self-help activities, and may exhibit self-abusive acts or abusive behavior such as biting or scratching. Cognitive development may or may not be affected in some students, but in others they might not be able to respond to simple commands, identify shapes, colors, symbols, or words. Common problems of language development include delays in speech and language, speech clarity, and bizarre speech patterns. Students are often unable to communicate without grunts or shrieks. Motor development delays are very common with students that have severe disabilities. Specific problems may include difficulty walking or sitting without support. Children may be unable to perform basic tasks such as rolling over, grasping objects, or holding their head up.

Deafness and Blindness

“IDEA defines deaf-blindness as concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness” (Heward, 2009, p. 455). Students that have both deafness and blindness struggle significantly with learning, communication, and social skills.

According to K 12 Academics (2011),

“Children born deaf and blind are described as having congenital deafblindness. This condition may be due to prenatal infection (such as rubella), genetic/chromosomal syndromes (such as Down syndrome), birth trauma or maternal heavy drug and alcohol use. Some congenital conditions will not cause deafblindness until later in life. Maternal rubella was once the major cause of deafness and deafblindness in the west, but is now rare due to widespread vaccination programs. Usher syndrome is also a major contributor to deafblindness. It is a genetic condition of people born deaf or hard of hearing, who gradually start to lose their sight. The sight loss usually begins in late childhood and is caused by an eye condition known as Retinitis Pigmentosa. Early symptoms include night blindness and loss of peripheral vision” (K12 Academics, 2011, p. 1).

Children with deafness and blindness, “Do no receive clear and consistent information from either sensory modality. They may not respond to or initiate appropriate interactions with others and often exhibit behavior that is considered socially inappropriate” (Heward, 2009, p. 456). In addition to students’ deafness and blindness, “60% have cognitive impairments and 40% have complex health care needs” (Heward, 2009, p. 456 – 457).

In conclusion, mental retardation, traumatic brain injury, autism, severe disabilities, and deafness and blindness are disabilities that are impacting our students and schools. By learning about each individual disorder, their causes, and characteristics we can become a better teacher and professional.

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