Cognitive Impairment

Cheerful school children with special needs sitting at a desk in primary school class

A cognitive impairment (also known as an intellectual disability) is a term used when a person has certain limitations in mental functioning and in skills such as communication, self-help, and social skills. These limitations will cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than a typical child. It is diagnosed through the use of standardized tests of intelligence and adaptive behavior. It can be caused by injury, disease, genetic condition, or a brain abnormality. This can happen before a child is born or during childhood. For many children, the cause of their intellectual disability is not known.

How will this affect my child?

Children with intellectual disabilities may take longer to learn to speak, walk, and take care of their personal needs such as dressing or eating. They are likely to have trouble learning in school. They will learn, but it will take them longer.

What do I need to think about for my child’s IEP?

Students with an intellectual disability are often eligible for special education supports and services under the category of cognitive impairment. A child with a cognitive impairment can do well in school but will likely need supplementary aids and services. It’s important that students with intellectual disabilities be involved in the general education curriculum. It’s the same curriculum that’s learned by those without disabilities. Remember that IDEA does not permit a student to be removed from a general education classroom solely because he or she needs modifications to the general education curriculum. Visit our webpage for more information on inclusion.

Is there some technology that can help my child?

Assistive technology is a related service listed in IDEA. Technology is a key to leveling the playing field for individuals with disabilities. Learn more on our Assistive Technology webpage.

If your child has difficulty speaking, you might consider an alternative/ augmentative communication device

What about the terms “retard” and “mental retardation”?

The word “retard,” is slang for the term mental retardation. Mental retardation was how professionals used to describe people with an intellectual impairment. Today the r-word has become an insult for someone or something stupid. Across the nation advocates are campaigning against the word “retard”, pledging to remove it from everyday vocabulary.  

IDEA uses the term “mental retardation”.  In 2010, President Obama signed a law changing the term to be used in the future to “intellectual disability”. The definition itself did not change and is defined as:  “…significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”

Where can I find support?

The Arc Michigan works to ensure that people with Developmental Disabilities are valued so that they and their families can participate fully in and contribute to their community. There are also  local chapters across the state. Another Michigan resource is the Developmental Disabilities Institute. National organizations you might want to check out include:

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