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Supporting Someone with an Intellectual Disability

Supporting another person, including a person with an intellectual disability may come with challenges. Whether you are a professional carer or you are supporting a loved one, understanding their intellectual disability will benefit you both.

What is an Intellectual Disability? 

An intellectual disability is present when a person has deficits in intellectual and adaptive functioning including abstract thinking, communication, and self-care skills. The disability means a person may learn at a slower rate or through different methods compared to the general population. An intellectual disability can develop before birth, such as Down Syndrome and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, or due to a birth defect or infection. Some babies develop an intellectual disability during birth or early in life. Diseases such as whooping cough, measles, and meningitis can also cause intellectual disability in children. 

A psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose children and adults with an intellectual disability using an IQ test and adaptive behaviour test, to an extent. There are 460,000 people in Australia who have an intellectual disability. Around 4.5% of children under 14 have an intellectual disability, almost twice as many boys than girls.  

It is always important to highlight the fact that a person with a disability has the same rights and feelings as everyone else. The disability shouldn’t define who they are or how they are treated. Around 29% of NDIS participants with an intellectual disability are in paid employment, with Disability Employment Services (DES) available to provide holistic employment support. 

Manifestations of People with an Intellectual Disability

In the Workplace

Individuals with an intellectual disability often exhibit unique characteristics in their learning and interactions. For instance, when it comes to the workplace they might experience a steeper learning curve, requiring additional time and perhaps more repetitions or hands-on guidance to master new skills or tasks. Communication can also present challenges, with some finding it hard to understand complex instructions. Social interactions at work, picking up on subtle nuances, such as sarcasm or specific jokes, can be tricky for people with an intellectual disability. They might also find it challenging to interpret non-verbal cues, leading to potential misunderstandings.

In Family & Community Spaces

Individuals with intellectual disabilities can face challenges in mastering daily living skills, such as grooming, cooking, or handling finances. This extends to their social relationships, and many can find it hard to forge and sustain friendships. The underlying reasons can be multifaceted, from difficulties in grasping social norms to challenges in reading emotional cues. 

Within familial settings, parents may observe their child with an intellectual disability reaching key developmental milestones, such as speaking, at a slower pace compared to other children. Additionally, there can be behavioural concerns; for instance, some might exhibit behaviours like frequent meltdowns or repetitive actions, particularly in unfamiliar or stressful situations.

Importance of Support for a Person with an Intellectual Disability

The benefits of high-quality support shouldn't be underestimated as it can significantly influence someone's confidence and function. Being understood and having your needs met can boost a person’s confidence on a daily basis. 

Good support means a person feels enabled and part of society because they can participate in community, work, and/or socialise. Support is also crucial for improved healthcare outcomes and advocating for a person’s rights.

How to Support a Person with an Intellectual Disability

Just as every person is unique, so is every intellectual disability. It’s important that carers know the best way to communicate with the person they’re supporting and have the required patience. The level of dependency on others often correlates with the severity of the intellectual disability. In many cases, especially severe ones, the individual might lean heavily on family for support, a dependency that can extend well into their adult years.

The four levels of intellectual disability are mild, moderate, severe, and profound. These categories consider a person’s abilities across conceptual, social, and practical life skills and IQ scores to an extent. However, it’s important to note that although a person can be said to meet criteria if they score 70 or less on a standardised measure of IQ, they would also need to meet the other elements of the criteria regarding deficits in intellectual functions via clinical assessment and deficits in adaptive functioning.

Mild intellectual disability

Around 85% of people with an intellectual disability are considered part of the mild category. This means they can learn life skills but may still need ongoing support into adulthood. Parents and/or carers often provide help to complete tasks, but eventually, people with an intellectual disability can be successful in learning how to complete many practical life skills.

Many people with an intellectual disability are routine-oriented, valuing consistency in their daily lives. Unexpected changes or sudden shifts in plans can be particularly unsettling, so providing support to maintain a stable environment can play a significant role in their comfort and well-being.

Moderate intellectual disability

Most people with a moderate intellectual disability can make their way to locations they have visited before but are usually unable to live alone. They will have some communication difficulties but can learn basic maths, reading, and writing skills. 

Providing support may include visual prompts to help with communication and learning, and may be needed to provide lifelong help with finances, transportation, and scheduling. Unsupported personal care, such as dressing and bathing, can be possible for some who have had the support and practice during childhood, although reminders may still be needed.

Severe intellectual disabilities

A severe intellectual disability can involve impairment of fine and gross motor skills. A person with severe intellectual disability may understand simple speech, though will likely rely on facial expressions and body language. Nevertheless, communication should always be age-appropriate. Speaking to an adult as you would to a young child is demeaning. Moreover, around-the-clock care for all components of daily living is required.

Profound intellectual disability

A profound intellectual disability is similar to a severe diagnosis, requiring around-the-clock care. There are difficulties in communication, so understanding one another can be a challenge. Carers need to treat their participant or family member with respect. Whether the person is a child or an adult, carers should ask questions and give enough time to listen, process, and respond. Avoid rushing the response. Instead, one should pause and wait. If the question wasn’t understood, repeat it using simple, different, and other methods of communication, such as pictures and gesturing. 

Supporting someone with an intellectual disability can be challenging and communication can be hard. Don’t pretend to understand, even if it is frustrating for one or both of you, as it’s disrespectful. Communication with people who are well-known to the person with a profound intellectual disability, such as family members or regular Support Workers, is often more successful than with those who are less familiar as they have had much more time to learn certain communication cues. Overall, it's essential to approach each person as an individual and tailor support strategies to their specific challenges and strengths. Above all, it's about ensuring they lead dignified, fulfilling, and inclusive lives.

We strive to deliver exceptional services to people with a disability, including NDIS participants, and inclusive employer partners. Contact us online or call 1800 258 487 for more information on our disability services.

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