Couple with intellectual disability working together in their kitchenIndividuals with an intellectual disability often have a variety of options for help and support available to them. While intellectual disabilities cannot be cured and there are no specific medications to treat their effects, special education programs and training can begin assisting a child even early in life through early intervention programs.

Support and Therapy for Intellectual Disabilities

Once a condition has been diagnosed and evaluated by a specialist, it is typical to create an Individualized Family Services Plan (IFSP), which outlines the needs of the child and the services that child should receive.

When a child reaches school age, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will be developed by school staff and the parents of the child. Special education programs and related services are available at no cost to every child who has a disability, and these programs are often able to help children access and develop their potential fully. Behavioral counseling may also be recommended in some cases. As a child grows older, age-specific adaptive skills are included in instruction, and IEPs generally begin to include information on transition planning by or before age 16. 

Intervention methods are typically tailored to the individual, and in some cases, small changes in lifestyle or care arrangements may lead to improvement. In others, more specialized health care, counseling, or therapy may be more effective. Those with mild intellectual disability in particular may find talk therapy helpful. Psychotropic medications may also be prescribed in some cases.

Accommodations for Intellectual Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects all individuals with intellectual or other disabilities. This act prevents discrimination in employment and housing, requires reasonable accommodations from employers and educational institutions, and mandates that public facilities be made accessible to all individuals. 

Services that can be of benefit to people with intellectual disabilities include residential homes, day rehabilitation programs, and workshops that can help individuals obtain jobs and homes and connect with members of the community. Specific psychotherapeutic programs also provide a way for those challenged with intellectual disabilities to learn basic life skills and set and achieve life goals while learning to obtain independence.

Intellectual Disability and Mental Health

Research shows individuals who have an intellectual disability have a higher risk of mental health concerns, including depression and suicidal ideation. Up to 40% of individuals with an intellectual disability may also face some type of mental health challenge. Other mental health issues that commonly co-occur with an intellectual disability may include:

Because some individuals with cognitive limitations may find it difficult to explain their emotions and experiences, it can be challenging for mental health care providers to identify and diagnosis conditions when they are present, and many professionals are unaware of the frequency of the comorbidity of these conditions. When these conditions are identified, however, counseling and some forms of therapy can often help.

Case Examples of Intellectual Disability in Therapy

  • Therapy for intellectual disability caused by fetal trauma: Martina, 32, has an intellectual disability that is believed to be the result of trauma before birth. Although she experiences some cognitive impairment, she has achieved a significant level of independence. She lives with a roommate and has a part-time job cleaning cages and feeding animals at the animal shelter. Martina's older sister checks in on her once a week, and Martina always reports that she is happy and "doing just fine." However, one week, her sister visits to find Martina has stopped showering, dressing herself, or going to work. Martina cannot explain to her sister why she has stopped doing these things, she simply says she did not "feel like it." Martina's sister encourages Martina to call her case worker, who helps Martina make an appointment with a therapist. In the therapy session, the therapist discovers Martina has recently found out that some of the animals at the shelter are put down and not adopted. She previously believed they were all being adopted, and her discovery has led her to experience significant sadness and a low mood. Martina breaks down into tears, telling the therapist and her sister (who is present for the session at Martina's request) she does not want the animals to go away anymore. The therapist asks Martina whether she might like to try working at another type of job, and Martina agrees. Her sister helps her find a job at a grooming salon, where she can work with animals in a more positive environment, and Martina's mood improves once more. 


  1. Intellectual disability. (n.d.). American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Retrieved from§ion=Treatment 
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  3. Quintero, M. (2010). Co-Occuring mental illness and developmental disabilities. Social Work Today, 10(5), 6. Retrieved from  
  4. Reynolds, T., Zupanick, C. E., & Dombeck, M. (n.d.). Retrieved from