What are cognitive disabilities?

September 3, 2018
Cognitive disabilities are made up of a range of conditions

In Australia every two hours a child will be diagnosed with an intellectual disability, according to a paper put forward by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in 2011. With approximately 3 per cent of the population living with a cognitive impairment, as reported by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), what does this broad term actually mean and what are some ways of offering support?

Defining cognitive disabilities

The term cognitive disability covers a whole variety of conditions that cause diminished cognitive and adaptive development, whether short-term or permanent. More males than females are affected by intellectual disabilities, and they are often caused by genetic disorders or brain injuries.

Some of the better known examples of cognitive impairment are autism, dementia, Down syndrome, or traumatic brain injury. Other conditions include dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and other learning disabilities.

Some conditions people are born with; others such as dementia can develop as you age.

Learning disabilities can make development and school life difficult for children.Low IQ can be an indication of cognitive impairment.

How are cognitive disabilities diagnosed?

Most people with cognitive impairments are under 65 years old, and it is common for them to have other types of disabilities alongside. Whether born with cognitive disabilities or having developed them later in life, people with intellectual impairments are diagnosed in three main ways.

Most people with cognitive impairments are under 65 years old, and it is common for them to have other types of disabilities alongside.

Intellectual functioning

Assessing how a person is able to learn is important to the diagnosis. Finding out how they think, their level of problem-solving abilities, and how they make sense of the world all goes into the assessment.

Although IQ tests have rightly come under greater scrutiny as our understanding of cognition improves, someone who scores below 70 to 75 on a test is typically thought to be cognitively impaired.

Adaptive behaviour or functioning

Adaptive behaviour includes daily living skills, a person’s ability to communicate, and social skills in interacting with those around them. For children, this is measured against peers of similar ages to see how they compare.

Medical exams

As cognitive impairments can be caused by physical health problems like tumours or strokes, sometimes MRI or CT scans are used. A blood test can also detect Alzheimer’s disease.

Developmental disabilities can range in the strength of their impact, and many that live with minor cognitive impairments will go their whole life without being diagnosed.

Brain or CT scans can be used to diagnose cognitive conditions when caused by strokes, tumours, or brain injuries. Strokes, tumours, or brain injuries can cause cognitive impairment.

Some of the impacts of cognitive disabilities

It is important to know some of the ways that having a cognitive disability can affect you or a loved one. Being aware of impacts means they can be managed in a more efficient and understanding way.

Remembering, processing, and accessing information can be difficult with a cognitive impairment. For example, in an emergency, someone with an intellectual disability may not react or understand what is happening around them as well as might be expected.

As impacts vary from person to person, understanding and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each individual allows solutions to be found that minimise the impact of having a cognitive impairment on their lives.

How to help those with cognitive disabilities

Living with a cognitive disability can be difficult, depending on the level that it affects day-to-day life. If it the condition is more severe, having a carer may be necessary to help maintain wellbeing.

However, if it is something milder, there are a few ways you can help. Some of the best things to do include creating a strong support network for them and remaining positive. Ensuring your loved one gets healthy levels of sleep, engages in physical activity, and knows relaxation techniques to use, can also improve daily life.

Often the areas someone with a cognitive impairment needs help in can be broken into three sections; self-care, mobility, and communication.

Often the areas someone with a cognitive impairment needs help in can be broken into three sections; self-care, mobility, and communication.

Providing simple assistance with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping, or even helping them get from place to place, can mean a lot to your loved one. If they are struggling with communication, ensure you have their attention before beginning a conversation. Try speaking slowly and clearly, using simple words and phrases, and avoid raising the volume of your voice, or speaking as if they are a child.

In all areas, patience and understanding is needed.

Due to the wide range of conditions that can be classified under cognitive impairment, there is no solution that fits all situations. But whether it’s a lifelong condition, or one that develops later on in life, those living with a intellectual disability don’t have to do it alone. Contact us at Tunstall to learn what we can do to help you or your loved ones live a full life.

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