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What causes intellectual disability?

Factors that cause intellectual disability can be genetic, developmental, environmental, or a combination. Genetic causes include chromosomal and inherited conditions. Developmental and environmental factors include prenatal exposure to infections and toxins. Environmental or acquired factors include prenatal trauma (e.g., prematurity) and sociocultural factors.  Among chromosomal disorders, Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome are the most common disorders that usually produce at least mild intellectual disability.

What is an Unspecified Intellectual Disability?

A diagnosis of “unspecified intellectual disability” is given to children over 5 years of age when it is either too difficult or impossible to assess the degree of intellectual disability through locally available procedures because of sensory or physical impairments, such as blindness or deafness, locomotor disability, severe behavior problems, or a co-occurring mental disorder. This diagnosis is only used in exceptional circumstances and requires reassessment after a period of time.

How can a child with an intellectual disability be helped?

According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, a child or adolescent with an intellectual disability needs a degree of “environmental support” to develop a specific set of adaptive behaviors. This includes support for succeeding in the areas of communication, self-care, home living, social or interpersonal skills, use of community resources, self-direction, functional academic skills, work, leisure, health, and safety.

Mental Health Library Sources:

Information included in all topics of the Mental Health Library comes from the Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria From DSM-5 and Kaplan & Sadock’s Concise Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry. Complete diagnostic and treatment information may be found within these publications.


Information within the Mental Health Library is not intended to be used for self-diagnosis purposes. Rather, it is provided as a public educational service to make people aware of mental health conditions. Please consult a qualified mental health professional for a diagnosis of any suspected mental health illness.

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