The term “Intellectual and Developmental Disability” (I/DD) is designed to be as inclusive as possible. This diverse community is made up of individuals with their own unique strengths and challenges, and experiences vary tremendously from one person to the next. 

So what exactly does it mean to have an intellectual or developmental disability, and what is the distinction between them? It’s helpful to think of “developmental disability” as an umbrella term that encompasses both physical and cognitive differences. Intellectual disabilities, on the other hand, are a subcategory of developmental disabilities that doesn’t include differences that are strictly physical in nature. 

i/dd girl with paintsWhat is an intellectual disability?

An intellectual disability is a difference that appears during childhood (before the age of 18) that significantly impacts a person’s ability to learn, reason, communicate, socialize, or perform self-care tasks. While there is a lot of variation in how individuals are impacted by an intellectual disability, the effects are expected to be lifelong. 

Some intellectual disabilities are genetic, while some are acquired during childhood or fetal development. Injuries, exposure to toxins, environmental factors, and childhood health problems can contribute to these cognitive and neurological differences. 

Some of the most common syndromes associated with intellectual disabilities are: 

What is a developmental disability?

Developmental disabilities include intellectual disabilities as well as physical ones. Some conditions, like blindness or muscular dystrophy, may not impact cognitive functioning at all, while others tend to create both physical and intellectual differences. 

Because some diagnoses, like epilepsy and cerebral palsy, may or may not contribute to learning challenges, “developmental disability” is a helpful term that doesn’t assume anything about an individual’s unique situation. 

Developmental disabilities appear before the age of 22 and have an ongoing impact on the activities of daily living. Like intellectual disabilities, they may have genetic, physical, or environmental causes. 

How are intellectual and developmental disabilities classified? developmental disability wheelchair

One of the key differences between intellectual and developmental disabilities is the way they are classified. 

Intellectual disabilities are stratified according to severity:

By contrast, developmental disabilities are more often classified by their specific diagnosis. Because the specific impact of a developmental difference varies so much between people, it’s best to avoid making assumptions about any individual’s experience before getting to know them. 

Do intellectual or developmental disabilities affect intelligence?

While specific intellectual disabilities can be associated with a lower-than-average intelligence quotient (IQ), there are many ways to measure intelligence. Differences in the way that some I/DD individuals learn or express themselves often mean that traditional inventories don’t really reflect their true cognitive abilities. Furthermore, many people with developmental disabilities are intellectually and neurologically typical. 

The only way to know the scope of a person’s differences is to take the time to get to know them. Interact with members of the I/DD community the same way you would anyone else unless you’re told otherwise. You may be blown away by a new friend’s unique perspective. 


Fun for the entire family can sometimes feel like a tall order. Kids with intellectual and developmental differences who are part of multi-child families may have needs and interests that are different from their siblings. 

If you’re hoping to make memories with the entire crew, your options are far from limited. Everyday activities can become opportunities for bonding. Here are some ways to get creative about how you accommodate the needs of each family member. 

sensory friendly play sandHonor all skill levels.

There is a job for everyone in your next family project. Whether you’re planting a garden, building a treehouse, or just making dinner, there are usually tasks within each activity that are suitable for kids of all ages and abilities.

While chopping vegetables may not be an ideal task for a child still mastering fine motor skills, mixing and measuring ingredients may be perfect. Giving each family member their own role in a collaborative project helps everyone come together and take pride in the end result. 

Include sensory-friendly modifications.

Kids with sensory sensitivities may find boisterous siblings overwhelming at times. Fortunately, small adjustments to your home can make family activities more enjoyable for everyone. 

Looking for fun outside of your home? 

Many attractions, including zoos, aquariums, amusement parks, and theaters, offer special sensory-friendly programming on select days. These events help the whole family enjoy outings with reduced sensory triggers. 

Choose no-rules activities.sensory friendly outdoors

Games that require that everyone understands and follows a set of rules can be frustrating for differently-abled siblings. This isn’t the case for playtime that is focused on self-expression.

Designated activities with no right or wrong approach can be relaxing and fun. Get everyone together for:

Share an adventure.

Regardless of our age or ability, we all have a unique perspective on the world around us. Shared experiences allow each family member to make their own memories while growing closer together. 

Plan a road trip.

Take a hike.

Visit a landmark. 

You’ll probably find that you don’t need to travel far to escape the ordinary. Encourage each child to discuss their perspective of your adventure: 

What stood out most?

What were they most excited about?

What was their favorite part of your outing?

Encouraging each family member to share their thoughts and impressions about an experience they have in common encourages empathy, perspective-taking, and closeness. Look for ways to use family activities to strengthen sibling bonds, and kids will view the differences in their abilities as part of what makes them unique. 


The differences in our abilities make us unique, but they don’t define our worth.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities all have their own interests, preferences, and goals. They also have a valuable perspective to offer the world. 

Here are some tips for connecting with members of this community in a way that affirms their dignity, independence, and individuality. 

friends with wheelchair special needsSpeak to differently abled people like peers.

Talk to individuals with I/DD just like you would anyone else. If you’re meeting for the first time, introduce yourself as you normally would. Look for common ground and shared interests to build on in a conversation. 

If you’re having any difficulty communicating, ask clarifying questions and make it clear that you’re interested in understanding. Many people have a tendency to talk louder when confronted with a communication challenge, but that isn’t necessary or helpful unless the individual has a known hearing issue. 

Take your cues from your conversation partner – they will help set the tone and pace for your talk. 

Be age appropriate.

No one enjoys interacting with someone condescending. It’s important to remember that adults with disabilities are still adults. Avoid baby talk unless the person you’re speaking to is, in fact, a child.

Unless you’ve been told differently, assume that individuals with I/DD have the same interests and hobbies as their peer group. Statements like, Isn’t that movie too scary for you are infantilizing for mature individuals, regardless of their disability status.

Ask before assisting.happy cheerleader girl special needs

When offering help to an individual with I/DD, always ask their permission before jumping in.

Except in emergencies, it’s common courtesy to allow other people a say in whether or not they want our assistance. If they are receptive to your help, look for ways to work together to accomplish a goal rather than taking over. 

Respect differently abled people’s intelligence.

Even when communications challenges are present, it’s important to speak to people in the I/DD community directly rather than speaking to others on their behalf. 

Ease of speech isn’t an indicator of intelligence – many individuals with disabilities that make it difficult to process language and respond to questions are very bright. Be patient and courteous in conversation, and don’t change your normal way of speaking unless you’re asked to do so.

Give them space to be themselves.

We all feel more comfortable in conversations with warm, open people. We all have idiosyncrasies – they make us who we are.

At the end of the day, an interaction with a member of the I/DD community is just another opportunity to make a new friend. Be curious, genuine, respectful, and kind, and a great conversation will flow. 

It’s about so much more than the daily grind: the right job can be a source of tremendous satisfaction and personal fulfillment. 

Members of the I/DD community deserve the opportunity to pursue rewarding, enjoyable work. If you’re considering joining the workforce, you should know that holding a job offers many potential benefits like: 

Unsure of how to get started? Here are four tips for starting your search. 

idd job search with disability1. Know your strengths.

Planning your job search around your strengths will help ensure that you find work that is satisfying and rewarding. 

Think about your best qualities: are you hardworking and reliable? Friendly? Artistic? Organized? 

What challenges are you facing? What kind of work would you feel comfortable doing, and what makes you happy?

Whether you seek a job by asking friends and family or through your state’s I/DD Employment Services, it’s important to look for work that suits your skills and personality. 

Your resume is your chance to summarize your unique skills and work experience so that potential employers can get to know you better. Writing or updating your resume can be intimidating, so take advantage of resources to help you get started. Successful resumes are clear with good spelling and grammar, so it’s a good idea to have someone your trust read your resume and give you feedback. 

2. Sharpen your skillsidd job search office wheelchair

Because many jobs look for prior experience in a relevant field, it may be a good idea to build up your resume by volunteering. 

Volunteer work can allow members of the I/DD community opportunities to try out different varieties of work without the pressure of traditional employment. Giving back to your community feels great, and you may also discover brand-new talents and interests in the process.

Do you enjoy being a student? Organizations like the United Disabilities Services Foundation (UDSF) connect individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities with the training they need to succeed in their field of choice. 

idd job search restaurant3. Practice makes perfect.

Individuals living with intellectual and developmental disabilities and neurodivergence often feel more comfortable in novel situations when they know what to expect. 

Research frequently asked interview questions and practice your answers. Think about what you want to tell your interviewer about your interest in the job and the skills that you can bring. Role-playing the interview with a trusted friend or family member can help you feel relaxed and prepared for the real thing.  

4. Explore your resources.

Look to your community for help with refining your skills and identifying employment opportunities. 

Local programs like Everybody Works NC exist to connect I/DD job seekers with potential employers. These services also help community members connect with each other to share their insights and experiences. 

Take advantage of resources tailor-made for I/DD job candidates, and explore how you can turn your unique skillset into a rewarding career. 

As the weather gets warmer and the days get longer, it’s time to plan some summer fun. 

Families with sensory-sensitive children may have specific criteria for safe, enjoyable activities, but their options are far from limited. Here are six of our favorite ways to laugh, learn, and explore together this summer. 

sensory friendly art1. Plan a sensory-friendly art project.

Unlike so many activities, there is no right or wrong way to approach arts and crafts. Whether your sensory-sensitive child is a creative soul or a reluctant artist, art is a fantastic way to encourage open self-expression. 

Consider laying down plastic table cloths to create an “art zone” where messes aren’t a concern. If textures are an issue, try to offer a variety of craft supplies that your child will find pleasant to the touch, like fabrics, construction paper, pom poms, and pipe cleaners. Let your child choose how to interact with the materials, and let the creativity flow. 

2. Take a yoga break.

Mindful movement is a great way to release pent-up energy without the sensory challenges of team sports. 

Yoga has been shown to have multiple benefits for children with autism and other sensory differences. With practice, yoga can relieve anxiety, improve emotional communication, and increase body awareness. 

Head online for free resources that can help you make sensory-friendly yoga part of your summer routine. 

3. Go for a nature walk.

Completing a hike comes with a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Whether your family loves long walks or shorter ones, spending time in nature is great for the body and mind. 

Make your nature walk sensory-friendly by choosing a quiet, familiar trail with lots of opportunities to stop and appreciate your surroundings. Consider visiting at off-peak hours, both to avoid crowds as well as harsh sunlight or high temperatures. 

Don’t worry about mileage — it’s about the memories you make, not the ground you cover. 

4. Try equine therapy.sensory friendly equine therapy

Some children who tend to find their peers overwhelming are quick to form powerful bonds with animals. 

Equine therapy for autism and sensory-processing disorders uses horseback riding to boost kids’ confidence, calm their anxieties, and improve communication skills. Research shows that the relationships children form with horses contribute to long-term improvements in emotional health.  Explore local equine therapy day camps to find programs tailored to your child’s individual needs. 

If your child is an animal enthusiast in general, reach out to your local animal rescue. Many shelters have kid-friendly opportunities to help animals in need while building self-esteem. 

5. Pack a picnic.

There’s a reason people say that food just tastes better outside. Add a new dimension to lunchtime this summer by taking your meal outdoors – even if it’s in your own back yard. 

Plan a sensory-friendly picnic by choosing a shady spot. Lay down a soft blanket to avoid any itchy sensations from the grass, and choose mild foods that you know your child will enjoy. 

6. Seek out local sensory-friendly events.

Tap into your local community to stay up-to-date on upcoming events geared towards families with sensory-sensitive children

Many local amusement parks, movie theaters, and attractions have designated sensory-friendly events that allow all children to join in on the fun by removing aspects of the experience that may be overwhelming. 

If you notice sensory-friendly options that are missing in your area, harness the power of your I/DD community and connect with other families who share your goals. 

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