What to know about intellectual disabilities

Intellectual disabilities are disabilities characterised by limitations of mental functioning and abilities, as well as adaptive function and behaviour, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This type of disability develops before birth, during early childhood or adolescence (always before the age of 18).

A person with an intellectual disability may have more difficulty with practical and everyday aspects of life, like problem solving, practical understanding, reasoning, learning from example or instructions, abstract thinking, verbal communication, and working memory.

Intellectual disabilities are classified according to severity into four categories: mild, moderate, severe or profound. Each level comes with its own degree of intellectual, physical and adaptive functioning, and will require a specific level of support or care. Different intellectual disabilities have different causes, such as genetics (e.g. Down syndrome), illnesses (e.g. meningitis), brain trauma, or developmental disorders (e.g. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome).

Down Syndrome

What is down syndrome?

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by a person being born with 47 chromosomes, instead of the normal 46. Having extra or abnormal chromosomes changes the way the brain and body develops, and this causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome. Down syndrome causes distinct physical features, as well as moderate to mild intellectual disability.

General symptoms of Down syndrome include:

A short neck and short arms and legs

Mild to moderate intellectual disability

Low muscle tone and loose joints

Distinctive facial features, such as a flat face, small ears, slanting eyes, and a small mouth

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Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

What is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a developmental disorder, characterised by a specific pattern of physical and mental birth deficiencies. This disorder is caused by alcohol consumption by pregnant mothers.

General symptoms of FAS to look out for:

Facial features – such as small eye openings, a thin upper lip, and a smooth philtrum (the groove between nose and upper lip).

Poor growth – new born babies with FAS may have low birth weights and small head sizes. They may not grow or gain weight as well as other children and may be short as adults.

Birth defects – babies and children with FAS may have heart, bone, and kidney problems, as well as bad eyesight and hearing loss.

Seizures and other neurological problems – for example poor balance and coordination.

Delayed development – children may not reach developmental milestones at the expected time.

Behavioural problems – FAS babies may be fussy or jittery, and have trouble sleeping. Older children and teens may have a lack of coordination and poor fine motor skills, poor social skills, varying degrees of intellectual disabilities, behavioural problems such as hyperactivity, poor attention and concentration, stubbornness, impulsiveness, and anxiety.

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