SSI Disability Benefits for a Child With Intellectual Disorder or Low IQ

Children whose intellectual or social functioning is very delayed for their age might be eligible for SSI disability.

By , J.D. · University of Virginia School of Law

Children with intellectual disorders or low IQs can qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits if their intellectual functioning is so limited that it severely affects their life. To qualify for SSI disability benefits, your child must:

Is Having a Low IQ a Disability?

A low IQ test alone isn't enough to qualify medically for SSI; you'll need to show how your child's learning or doing tasks is limited. Your child must have a disability that severely limits their ability to function at an age-appropriate level and is expected to last at least 12 months.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a listing of mental and physical impairments (called the Blue Book) that are considered severe enough to qualify for SSI automatically. There are separate listings for children and adults.

Social Security now calls a severe intellectual disability "intellectual disorder." (The SSA had previously used the term "mental retardation," and after that, "intellectual disability"). Intellectual disorder is also known as general learning disability, mental disability, or intellectual development disorder.

Meeting Social Security's Disability Listing for Intellectual Disorder

Social Security will automatically approve an SSI disability claim based on low IQ for a child who meets the financial requirements and all the criteria in the SSA's listing. For intellectual disorder, Social Security uses listing 112.05 (described below).

This listing applies only to children who are at least three years. Social Security evaluates children who've turned 18 under the adult listing for intellectual disability, which is very similar to the children's listing.

So, what is the IQ cutoff for a diagnosis of intellectual disability? That depends on when you applied for SSI disability benefits for your child. A few years ago, Social Security significantly changed the listing requirements.

What Counts as an Intellectual Disability Under the New Listing Requirements?

For SSI applications based on intellectual disorder filed in 2017 or later, the listing requires that, in addition to a low IQ, your child must have serious difficulty in one or more areas of functioning, like social interactions, understanding information, concentration, or self-control.

Under the new listing, the child must have:

  • a full-scale IQ score of 70 or below (once considered the threshold for mental retardation) or a full-scale IQ score of 71-75 with a verbal or performance score of 70 or below, and
  • an extreme limitation in one of the following areas (or a severe limitation in two):
    • understanding, remembering, or applying information (ability to learn terms and concepts, follow instructions, and solve problems)
    • interacting with others (ability to understand social cues, cooperate, make and maintain friendships, and handle conflicts)
    • concentrating on tasks and maintaining pace (ability to complete tasks in a timely manner, ignore or avoid distractions, and work close to others without distracting them), and
    • managing oneself (ability to protect oneself from harm, regulate emotions, control behavior, and maintain personal hygiene).

Under the new listing, a child with an IQ of less than 60 is no longer automatically approved for benefits without showing severe or extreme limitations. More importantly, a child with an IQ between 60 and 70 will no longer be approved for benefits with (just) a significant limitation caused by another physical or mental impairment (see below).

What Were the Old Listing Requirements for Intellectual Disability?

For applications filed in 2016 or earlier, there were three ways that a child could meet the listing for intellectual disability (or mental retardation), regardless of the child's age. Those included:

  • an IQ of 59 or less
  • an IQ between 60 and 70 that caused marked (severe) impairment in social functioning, personal functioning, or the ability to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace, or
  • an IQ between 60 and 70, PLUS another physical or mental impairment that causes an additional significant functional limitation.

What Types of Functioning Does Social Security Look at?

When Social Security evaluates functional limitations, it considers the problems that a child has in specific areas of life like:

  • social functioning
  • cognitive and communicative functioning
  • personal functioning
  • motor functioning, and
  • the ability to focus and complete tasks at a reasonable pace.

Social Security takes age into account when evaluating your child's functional limitations. For example, when a four-year-old child can't get dressed without help, it's not considered evidence of a functional limitation. But when a fourteen-year-old can't get dressed without help, it is evidence of a limitation in personal functioning.

How Children Who Can't Take an IQ Test Can Qualify for SSI

Social Security has set a different standard for children whose intellectual disability is so severe that they can't function well enough to take an IQ test. The SSA will automatically grant benefits if your child's adaptive functioning is poor enough to make them dependent on others (beyond age-appropriate dependence) for basic personal needs like:

  • toileting
  • eating
  • dressing, or
  • bathing.

Can Moderate Intellectual Disability or Borderline IQ Qualify for SSI?

Children with a full scale, performance, or verbal IQ score of 71 or above won't qualify for SSI disability benefits under the intellectual disorder listing. But that doesn't necessarily mean your child won't qualify for SSI based on an intellectual disability.

Social Security evaluates borderline intellectual functioning, often diagnosed by IQ test scores between 71 and 84, under the listing for "neurodevelopmental disorder."

How Infants and Toddlers With Severe Developmental Delays Can Qualify for SSI

Because of the difficulty in diagnosing IQ in infants and toddlers under three, Social Security doesn't use the intellectual disorder listing for children of this age. Instead, Social Security uses listing 112.14 for developmental disorders in infants and toddlers. Social Security uses this listing to evaluate disorders like developmental coordination disorder, separation anxiety disorder, sensory processing disorder, and general developmental delay.

To qualify for SSI under the listing, your baby or toddler must have a condition that causes significant delays in functioning. In infants, physicians may look for symptoms like:

  • failure to feed properly
  • failure to mimic or engage in facial expressions, and
  • severe under- or over-reactions to sounds or sights.

Specifically, the listing requires that the child have a delay or deficit development of age-appropriate skills, plus an extreme limitation of one of the following developmental abilities or a severe limitation of two of the following:

  • controlling motor movement
  • learning and remembering
  • interacting with others, or
  • regulating physiological functions, attention, emotion, and behavior.

Medically or Functionally Equaling the Listings

A child who doesn't meet the requirements of the intellectual disorder listing (or another listing) still might be eligible for SSI disability. If your child's impairment (or combination of impairments) medically or functionally "equals" the listings, the child can qualify for disability benefits. For the claim to be successful, you'll have to show that your child's condition:

  • is medically equivalent to the listings, or
  • very seriously interferes with your child's daily functioning.

You can prove functional equivalence if you can show that your child's impairment has the same level of severity as listings. Being able to equal a listing can be especially important for very young children since they're often old enough to exhibit serious limitations but might not be old enough for a doctor to assign a specific diagnosis. Learn more about getting SSI for a child by functionally equaling the listings.

How to Apply for SSI Benefits for a Child with Intellectual Disorder

You have a couple of options to apply for SSI disability benefits for your child. You can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) to make an appointment to apply. At your appointment, a Social Security representative will help you with the paperwork.

You can also get your child's disability application started online. Applying online is a two-step process. You must:

  • complete an online child disability report (which should take about an hour), and
  • accept a phone call from a Social Security representative to discuss the claim and complete the application for SSI (generally three to five business days after you submit the online report)

Social Security offers a starter kit with checklists and worksheets you can use to get ready to file your child's SSI application.

You can also hire a disability lawyer or advocate to help build your child's SSI case. Social Security applicants often have more success when they work with an attorney than when they file a claim on their own. Learn more about how a disability lawyer can help get SSI benefits for your child.

Updated September 2, 2022

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