Getting Disability for a Child With Intellectual Disorder or Low IQ

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

Children with an intellectual disorder, low IQ, or mental retardation can qualify for SSI disability benefits if their intellectual functioning is so limited that it severely affects their life.

If your child meets the financial eligibility guidelines for SSI, Social Security will consider whether his or her intellectual disorder is disabling enough to qualify. To qualify medically for SSI, children must have a disability that severely limits their ability to function and is expected to last at least twelve months.

Social Security has a listing of mental and physical impairments that are presumed to be severe enough to qualify for SSI. In 2017, Social Security changed its listing for intellectual disability significantly. Social Security now calls the impairment "intellectual disorder"; previously it used the term "mental retardation." The disorder is also known as general learning disability, mental disability, or intellectual development disorder.

Meeting the Listing for Intellectual Disorder

A child can be automatically approved for disability based on low IQ if he or she meets all of the criteria in the SSA’s listing. The listing for intellectual disorder is listing 112.05, described below. It applies only to children who are three years old and older. Children who turn 18 are evaluated under the adult listing for intellectual disability, which is very similar to the children's.

New Listing Requirements

For disability applications filed after January 27, 2017, the new listing requires that, in addition to a low IQ, the child must have deficits in one or more areas of functioning, like social interactions, comprehension, concentration, or managing him or herself.

Here's what the new listing requires:

  • The child must have a full scale IQ score of 70 or below, or a full scale IQ score of 71-75 with a verbal or performance score of 70 or below, and
  • The child must have an extreme limitation in one of the following areas, or a severe limitation in two of the following areas:
    • understanding, remembering, or applying information (ability to learn term and concepts, follow instructions, solve problems)
    • interacting with others (ability to understand social cues, cooperate, make and maintain friendships, handle conflicts)
    • concentrating on tasks and maintaining pace (ability to complete tasks in a timely manner, ignore or avoid distractions, work close to others without distracting them), and
    • managing oneself (ability to protect self from harm, regulate emotions, control behavior, 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 a (merely) significant limitation caused by another physical or mental impairment (see below).

Old Listing Requirements

For applications filed before January 27, 2017, there were three ways that a child could meet the listing for intellectual disability, regardless of the child's age. Your child could meet the listing if he or she has one of the following:

  • an IQ of 59 or less
  • an IQ between 60 and 70 that causes marked impairment in social functioning, personal functioning, or 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.
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 into account how old your child is when it evaluates his or her functional limitations. For example, the fact that a four-year-old child cannot dress herself is not evidence that she has a functional limitation, but a fourteen-year-old who cannot dress herself does have evidence of a limitation in her personal functioning.

Children Who Can't Take an IQ Test

There is a different standard for children whose incapacity is so severe and intellectual functioning so subaverage that they can't function well enough to take an IQ test. These children will automatically be granted benefits if their adaptive funcitoning is poor enough that they are dependent on others for their personal needs (for example, toileting, eating, dressing, or bathing), in excess of age-appropriate dependence.

Borderline IQ

Children who have a full scale, performance, or verbal IQ score of 71 above won’t qualify for benefits under the intellectual disorder listing. Social Security evaluates borderline intellectual functioning, which is often diagnosed by IQ test scores between 71 and 84, under the neurodevelopmental disorder listing.

Infants and Toddlers With Severe Developmental Delays

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 has listing 112.14, for Developmental Disorders Infants and Toddlers. To qualify for SSI under the listing, an infant 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 in the development of age-appropriate skills and an extreme limitation of one of the following developmental abilities, or a severe limitation of two:

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

Social Security uses this listing to evaluate disorders such as developmental coordination disorder, separation anxiety disorder, sensory processing disorder, and general developmental delay.

Medically or Functionally Equaling the Listings

If your child does not meet the criteria of the intellectual disorder listing, she still might be eligible for SSI if her impairment (or combination of impairments) medically or functionally "equals" the listings. To succeed, you will have to show that your child's condition is medically equivalent to the listings or that her condition very seriously interferes with her daily functioning. For more information, see our article on getting SSI for a child by functionally equaling the listings. Functional equivalence can be especially important for very young children, since they are old enough to exhibit serious limitations but may not be old enough for a doctor to assign a specific diagnosis.

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