Characteristics of Mentally Challenged Children

Once routinely institutionalized, most intellectual disabled children are now encouraged to live with their families, participate with their peer groups and even strive for independence. This modern attitude shift is due to a better understanding of what defines intellectual disability, and what does not.

A young girl looking up at her mother while working in a coloring book. (Image: iplan/a.collectionRF/amana images/Getty Images)


Mentally disabled children are unable to fulfill their intellectual potential, and have mental capacities that lag behind those of their peers. Intellectual disability has many different causes, degrees, variables and facets, and identifying it is more of a process of classification than a diagnosis of a disease. Intellectual disability also has a wide spectrum. At one end, there are mildly disabled people with such a high learning capacity that they are often no longer identified as intellectually disabled once they reach adulthood. At the other end, there are people so intellectually disabled that they can only learn the most basic skills.


According to the University of Illinois Extension, there are three common classifications of people with intellectual disability. Mildly disabled individuals have a mental age of 8 to 12. They are considered educable, meaning that they are capable of mastering some academic concepts. Moderately disabled individuals have a mental age of 5 to 8, and are considered "trainable," but not capable of learning academic subjects. Severely intellectually disabled people have a very limited capacity to learn. Many are institutionalized and require lifelong care.


intellectually disabled children are slow to learn, slow to process thought and have an impaired adaptive ability. They may also be slow in their physical development. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology states that, to be diagnosed as intellectually disabled, a child has to have both a significantly low IQ and serious difficulties functioning in his day-to-day life. According to Mark Dombeck, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and director of, a child with an IQ of 75 or lower falls into the disabled range.

Emotional and Behavioral Characteristics

Most intellectually disabled children are aware that they are not as intellectually adept as their peers. This knowledge can lead to self-esteem issues, as well as emotional and behavioral problems. Younger children may be withdrawn or anxious, or they may exhibit angry or attention-seeking outbursts. Teenagers may exhibit signs of depression. These problems, if not treated, can impede a child's progress.


The University of Illinois Extension states that intellectually disabled children often have accompanying physical problems, such as vision or hearing deficiencies, epilepsy or speech impairment. Although these problems are often associated with intellectual disability, they are not indicators of disability in and of themselves.

According to Dombeck, there are no personality traits common to all intellectually disabled people. Characteristics like stubbornness and a low tolerance for frustration are often associated with intellectual disability. However, many intellectually disabled children are happy and passive. Like children with average mental abilities, intellectually disabled children have a broad range of personality types, and respond to challenges in their own unique ways.

People often believe that intellectually challenged children lack the capacity to learn. However, most mentally challenged children can actually learn a great deal, and can even expect to live moderately independent lives in adulthood.

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