Intellectual disability factsheet


Children with intellectual disability learn at a slower rate than other children. They may also have developmental delays early in life.

Intellectual disability affects:

  • intellectual skills - learning, reasoning, memory, and problem-solving
  • adaptive behaviour - activities that are part of everyday life, such as talking, making friends, eating, dressing, and using the toilet.

Intellectual disability is different for every child. It can range from mild to severe.

 Signs and symptoms

Children with intellectual disability will generally learn at a slower rate than other children. 

This can cause delays in areas of development like:

  • cognitive skills - learning, reasoning, memory and problem-solving
  • language skills- speaking and communicating
  • motor skills - sitting up, crawling or walking
  • self-care activities - eating, dressing and using the toilet
  • social skills - playing and developing friendships.

Global Development Delay (GDD) is when there are multiple skills that are slow to develop.

Some children may have learning difficulties that are more noticeable when they start school and have trouble keeping up with learning, behaviour, and social skills.

Children develop skills at different rates. Some children may take longer than normal to develop these skills. 

If you are concerned that your child is not developing skills, speak to your:

  • child and family health nurse
  • child's teachers
  • local doctor
  • paediatrician.


Intellectual disability is diagnosed using formal tests with your child. These tests are done by:

  • paediatricians
  • psychologists
  • psychiatrists
  • school counsellors.

They will gather information from parents, therapists, doctors and either childcare educators or school teachers.

They will also observe your child and complete a series of activities called ‘formal’ tests or ‘cognitive assessments.’ Formal tests might include activities such as having your child:

  • name and remember pictures
  • complete puzzles and patterns
  • answer questions
  • perform independent and everyday activities of living.

Intellectual disability can be caused by:

  • genetic conditions like Down syndrome or fragile X syndrome
  • a traumatic injury to the head or brain
  • an infection like meningitis
  • problems during birth, like not having enough oxygen.

It is important that your child is checked by your family doctor or paediatrician to identify any other health concerns related to intellectual disability. They will discuss future steps to support your child and family.


Children with intellectual disability will learn and develop new skills at their own pace. They will often need more time and practice than other children of the same age. 

Every person with intellectual disability is unique, just like everyone else. The level of support needed will be different for every child and may change throughout their life. 

Your child's doctor will talk to you about health and support services that will help your child to develop and learn well.


Support for learning and development

Children with intellectual disability will need more support and resources to learn and develop new skills at their own pace. They will often need more time and practice than other children of the same age. 

Your child may be able to access extra support at school and home to help them learn to their best potential. Talk to your doctor about support for your child through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). 

The NDIS provides funding to help children with a developmental delay or intellectual disability in accessing therapy and support. 

All children have their own strengths and weaknesses. Building self-esteem is important for your child’s confidence in learning new skills.

Support for families

Every child with an intellectual disability is different. While some may require support for independent living, others may be able to live independently with only a few difficulties.

Having your child diagnosed with an intellectual disability can be an adjustment for the whole family, but support is always available. You can start by discussing your concerns and support options with your family doctor and your child’s school.

Resources and more information

Carers NSW Australia

Carers NSW

Email Send email
Phone(02) 9280 4744
Provides information, education and training, resources and referrals to support carers.
Related Links
Australian Government - Carer Gateway

Carer Gateway

Phone1800 422 737
A national service that provides practical information about services and support available to carers.
Related Links

Multicultural Disability Advocacy Association (MDAA)

Phone1800 629 072
The peak body for all people in NSW with disability and their families and carers, with a particular focus on those from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) / non English Speaking (NES) background with disability.
Related Links
National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)

National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)

Email Send email
Phone1800 800 110
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) supports people with a permanent and significant disability that affects their ability to take part in everyday activities.
Related Links
Parent Line NSW

Parent Line NSW

Phone1300 1300 52
A free telephone counselling and support service for parents and carers with children aged 0 to 18 who live in NSW.
Related Links - The Australian Parenting Website

Raising Children: Children with disability

A free online parenting resource funded by the Australian Government and reviewed by experts.
Related Links
Relationships Australia - New South Wales

Relationships Australia

Phone1300 364 277
Relationship support services including counselling for individuals, couples and families as well as parenting and relationship education.
Related Links
Siblings Australia inc - For siblings of children and adults with disability/illness

Siblings Australia

Email Send email
Phone(08) 8253 4936
Support for siblings of children and adults with chronic conditions including disability, chronic illness and mental health issues.
Related Links
Last updated Tuesday 12th March 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024