There are a lot of myths and misinformation about mental illness and disabilities. Many people think it’s “all in your head”, which is true in much the same way as breaking a bone is “all in your arm”. There are certain mental disabilities that people are fine with, such as depression and anxiety, right up until those disabilities cause a real world problem. Then people will complain about how inconvenient the whole situation is for them.
This is why many children get diagnosed with an intellectual disability. For some time, this was referred to as “mental retardation”, but as scientific understanding of mental disabilities has grown the term “retarded” has become less useful. It also became a slur, used to insult people, which caused many of those with disabilities to proclaim they didn’t want the word used any longer.
But what’s the problem with intellectual disabilities? What are they? The short answer is that an intellectual disability is exactly that. Some aspect of the brain was not fully formed for one reason or another, and a person is unable to process information at the same speed as the average person their age. This can cause many different issues throughout the person’s life.
Another bit of misinformation is that a person is either fully functional or has a mental disability, and there’s no in-between. That’s not true at all. The truth is that there is a wide range of problems that can be covered under the umbrella term of “intellectual disability”. For example, ADHD is often paired with the term. While the two aren’t the same thing by a strict reading of the DSM-V they tend to go hand in hand. Since ADHD affects a person’s ability to focus and process information, it’s understandable that they would also have a difficult time functioning at the same level as those around them.
This also means that not every person needs to be treated the same way. There are some therapies and medications that can help with some disabilities, where as others can only be managed. There are some people who will never learn how to be more functional than a child, where as others can function mostly at the level of those around them but will need more time to study and learn to do so.
In short, intellectual disabilities are difficult to diagnose from a short interaction. So don’t presume that you can tell if someone is or is not disabled.