Parenting a Child With an Intellectual Disability

Realizing the Bright Future of Your Child: An Intellectual Disability Resource for New Parents

“Your child has an intellectual disability.”

In the seconds that it takes to say those words, the whole world has changed for your family. Often, the time immediately after the diagnosis is a tumultuous one. There are many typical feelings, including fear, confusion, and anger—mixed with hope, pride, and love.

Some parents take a while coming to terms with the diagnosis. Many children with intellectual disabilities physically appear no different than anyone else, so it can sometimes be hard at first to believe the diagnosis. Others parents feel relieved that they finally have an answer.

As you get to know your child, you will understand their individual needs. Sometimes you’ll make a mistake, but for the most part, you’re going to do fine. In fact, your life will be enriched by your child in ways you never imagined.

Intellectual Disability Advice From Experts and Families

Special Olympics Chief Health Officer Dr. Alicia Bazzano, along with a team of experts, have created Realizing the Bright Future of Your Child: A Guide for New Parents. This guide was written to help you face the new experiences ahead of you more confidently. Although it may not seem like it right now, the future for your child is a bright one—brighter now than ever before for children with intellectual disabilities.

You’ll also find words of encouragement from other parents, and the reassurance that your family is not alone in this journey.

“Our dreams for our children may alter, but I can assure you they can and will achieve more than we may have hoped possible! It begins with love, growing into experiences and accountability. Know that you give them wings in each experience and opportunity! I encourage you to savor the moments as your child’s life unfolds before you! I wish you success throughout this parenting journey as it holds more gifts than you can possibly imagine!”
Brenda, mom of Jared, a Special Olympics athlete

This guide for new parents covers a range of topics, including:

  • how your child got the intellectual disability diagnosis
  • how to cope with the feelings you might be experiencing
  • finding the right therapies and supports for your child
  • intellectual disability resources
  • a letter from a Special Olympics athlete

Download the free guide: Realizing the Bright Future of Your Child: A Guide for New Parents.

What Is Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual disability begins in childhood and includes deficits in:

  • intellectual functions, such as reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, judgment, academic learning, and learning from experience.
  • adaptive functioning in activities of daily life, such as communication, social participation, and independent living.

Many children have other conditions that can occur together with intellectual disability, like autism, spectrum disorders, epilepsy, or cerebral palsy. There is much confusion about the difference between autism (autism spectrum disorders) and intellectual disability. Many children have both. But, in autism, there are deficits in social communication (such as having conversation and making friends). There are also repetitive or restricted behaviors and interests (such as repetitive hand flapping). In intellectual disability, the deficits are in intellectual functioning (learning/ problem solving).

As the guide points out, “What you should know is that having an intellectual disability is not a disease. It is not static or unchanging. It is a condition and its expression can change with therapies and supports.”

Learn more about intellectual disabilities.

Help Your Child Stay Healthy and Active Through Special Olympics

Special Olympics provides many opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to build confidence and learn new skills. Along the way, they become welcomed and valued members of their communities.

  • Early Childhood, Ages 2 to 7: Special Olympics Young Athletes™ is a sport and play program for children with and without intellectual disabilities, ages 2 to 7 years old. The program introduces basic sport skills, like running, kicking, and throwing. Young Athletes provides children of all abilities the same opportunities to advance in core developmental milestones. Children learn how to play with others and develop important skills for learning. Children also learn to share, take turns and follow directions: skills that help them in family, community, and school activities.

Learn more about Young Athletes.

  • Childhood, Adolescence and Into Adulthood, Ages 8 and Older: Special Olympics provides over 30 individual and team sports for people with intellectual disabilities, starting at age 8. Some teams join athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to promote understanding, respect, and compassion. Special Olympics sports provide a chance to stay active and healthy, and also allow participants to discover new strengths and abilities.

Learn more about Special Olympics sports programs.

Additional Resources for Parents of Children With Intellectual Disabilities

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