Understanding Autism With Intellectual Disability: How To Navigate It?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. Intellectual disability (ID) is characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors, originating before the age of 18.

Autism with intellectual disability refers to individuals who have both ASD and ID. It is estimated that around 50-70% of those with ASD also have some degree of ID. Understanding autism with intellectual disability is important, as it can help improve quality of life through proper treatment and support.

Understanding Autism With Intellectual Disability 

Autism with intellectual disability presents some distinct features and challenges. Those with both ASD and ID tend to have more impaired communication skills, rigid behaviors, and difficulties with daily living skills.

Autism With Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disability exacerbates the core symptoms of ASD, like difficulties with social interaction, communication deficits, and restrictive/repetitive behaviors. The severity of autism symptoms and degree of ID can vary greatly among individuals. Some key things to understand about autism with intellectual disability:

  • Language and communication: Most individuals have very limited verbal skills, ranging from a few words to being nonverbal. They rely heavily on nonverbal ways of communicating.
  • Cognitive rigidity: Difficulty coping with change, insistence on sameness, and restrictive/repetitive behaviors are very common. Adhering to routines and structure is important.
  • Sensory processing differences: Increased or decreased sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells, taste, and touch. This can lead to sensory overload and meltdowns.
  • Behavioral challenges: Self-injury, aggression, and tantrums may occur due to the inability to communicate needs and discomfort. 
  • Adaptive functioning deficits: Significant limitations in conceptual, practical, and social skills needed for daily living. Requires substantial support.

Also Check: ADHD Burnout Symptoms In Adolescents – How Will It Affect Their Health?

Causes Of Autism With Intellectual Disability

The exact causes of autism with intellectual disability are still being researched. Current evidence suggests:

  • Genetic mutations and variants – Studies indicate that ASD with ID is highly heritable. Rare genetic syndromes like Fragile X and Down syndrome greatly increase risk.
  • Brain structure and connectivity – Differences in the structure and connectivity of certain brain regions impact development.
  • Prenatal and perinatal factors – Advanced parental age, prenatal infections, prematurity, and birth complications may increase the likelihood.
  • Multi-factorial – For most individuals, autism with ID likely arises from a combination of genetic susceptibilities and environmental triggers. The interplay between nature and nurture is complex.

How To Treat Autism With Intellectual Disability?

While there is no cure, various therapies, and interventions can improve the quality of life for those with autism and intellectual disability. Key treatment approaches include:

  • Early intervention – Starting intensive behavioral therapies as early as possible leads to the best outcomes. Targeting communication, social, and cognitive skills.
  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA) – Utilizes techniques to increase positive behaviors and decrease negative behaviors. Focuses on skills for daily living.
  • Speech therapy – For those who are nonverbal or have limited speech, alternative communication systems like picture boards are taught.
  • Occupational therapy – Develops fine motor skills, promotes sensory integration, and teaches daily living skills like dressing, feeding, and hygiene.
  • Medications – May be prescribed to manage co-occurring conditions like seizures, ADHD, anxiety, sleep issues, and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Special education services – Individualized support and instruction in communication, socialization, academics, and vocational skills.
  • Assistive technology – Communication devices, visual schedules, tablets, headphones, weighted blankets, etc. can provide support.
  • Caregiver training – Providing guidance to families on behavioral techniques, creating structure/routine, safety, and self-care.

Read More: Dissociative Identity Disorder In Teens – What You Should Know?


Autism spectrum disorder combined with intellectual disability presents some unique challenges for those affected and their caregivers. However, with early intervention and evidence-based therapies, most can learn new skills and improve their quality of life.

Advances in assistive technology and genetics research offer much hope. A comprehensive treatment plan tailored to the individual’s strengths and needs is key. With proper support and acceptance, those with autism and intellectual disability can thrive and be valued members of the community.


Q: What are some early signs of autism with intellectual disability?

A: Early signs include lack of babbling/gesturing by 12 months, very limited speech development, lack of response to names or faces, poor eye contact, repetitive movements, hyper/hypo-reactivity to sensory input, and delays in motor skills.

Q: What is the difference between autism and intellectual disability? 

A: Autism is characterized by social/communication deficits and restrictive behaviors, while intellectual disability is characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors. They are separate conditions but frequently co-occur.

Q: What level of intellectual disability typically occurs with autism?

A: The majority of those with ASD have mild to moderate intellectual disability, with IQ scores between 55-70. About 30% have severe to profound ID, with IQ under 40.

Q: What can parents do if they suspect autism with intellectual disability?

A: Act quickly to have the child evaluated by specialists. Seek early intervention services like applied behavior analysis and speech therapy. Learn behavioral techniques and ways to support learning. Join a support group to connect with other parents.

Q: What is the prognosis for someone with autism and intellectual disability?

A: Prognosis varies greatly depending on severity. With early intensive intervention and support, many can learn new skills, improve behaviors, and achieve some independence. Lifelong assistance will be needed for daily living skills.

About the Author

Nicole Carter is a dedicated and passionate nutritionist, committed to helping individuals achieve their health and wellness goals through the power of proper nutrition. With a Bachelor's degree in Nutritional Science and years of practical experience.

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