Borderline Intellectual Functioning

What is Borderline Intellectual Functioning?

In the categorization of IQ levels, the average IQ level lies above 85. However, borderline intellectual functioning, also known as borderline mental disability, refers to individuals who have an IQ level that is below average (70-85). Their deficit does not dip down to below 70, which is a characteristic of full intellectual disability or mental retardation. The only difference between people with borderline intellectual functioning and those with a mental disability is that the former just have a cognitive impairment and hence do not need any specialized services to live their day to day lives.

If you were to take the name into perspective, you would say individuals with a borderline intellectual disability are between average IQ and below average IQ. The best way or place to notice people with borderline intellectual functioning is the class setting, where these particular students have a hard time catching or keeping up. Many of these people never complete high school or if they do, a good percentage can only achieve a low socioeconomic class status.

According to research by the American Psychiatric Association, the approximate estimate of the prevalence of the condition is one in a thousand people.

Overview of borderline intellectual functioning

Among the cognitive disabilities, borderline intellectual functioning is the most ignored condition, since individuals with the disability pass as just slow learners who don’t need specialized care. According to the DSM manual that classifies disabilities and psychiatric disorders, borderline intellectual functioning is a usually unrecognized co-morbid condition that is relevant to the diagnosis and treatment of many psychiatric disorders. With IQ classifications no longer part of the DSM, it leaves borderline intellectual functioning without a precise definition, since IQ scores are the only core criterion for diagnosing the condition. Schools don’t do IQ scores tests with all students, so individuals with the condition may go unnoticed until later in life.

Borderline intellectual functioning focuses more on learning and the application of information with a particular focus on areas like abstract thinking and the use of critical thinking in decision making. Most of the individuals affected by the condition exhibit high independence levels and are good at motor skills. However, those with the condition living in deprived environments usually experience difficulty even in the acquisition of basic motor skills.

At early stages, identifying and diagnosing the condition may prove challenging to the parent or the teacher. Unlike mental retardation, children with borderline intellectual functioning exhibit normal cognitive and motor functioning and their overall slow nature in the performance of various activities gets confused for a non-serious issue. To many parents and teachers, the slow learning nature for a child is nothing strange, instead it is seen as ordinary for children in the learning process. The condition can become more pronounced when the child starts attending school and starts interacting with peers and teachers. The intellectual ability delays may now become more noticeable, and if the parent acts quickly, the child can see a doctor for an IQ screening test.

Many times, parents of the children with the condition fail to notice a problem, since the children do not exhibit problems in activities to do with self-care. The only time a parent can see a problem is when the child has difficulty following complex conversations, or in some cases, experiences difficulty in social activities. Children with the condition may face challenges with higher order thinking too.

Issues associated with borderline intellectual functioning

Borderline intellectual functioning may lead to children with the problem facing taunting or bullying for being slow or intellectually inadequate, which may result in crushed confidence or low self-esteem.

Inability to make lasting interpersonal relationships

The children or adults with the condition may find it hard to socialize due to their failure to hold intellectually complex conversations like the average adult, hence they avoid social environments.

School dropout

Children with the condition struggle in class and face difficulties in acquiring reading and mathematics skills. In many cases, they never actually acquire these abilities. As they advance in class work and the concepts become more complex, the child finds it harder to keep up, and a good percentage of individuals drop out of school at this stage.

Suicidal thoughts/behavior

Due to the social stigma and discrimination that may come with being unable to think like everyone else, some of the individuals may get suicidal feelings or suffer from depression as a result of their seclusion.

Symptoms of Borderline Intellectual Functioning

For individuals with borderline intellectual functioning, the symptoms start manifesting themselves at an early age and vary depending on specific characteristics. The signs may or may not manifest themselves during infancy or in some cases only become noticeable later on in the child’s school life. The symptoms of intellectual disabilities vary in intensity from mild, moderate, high intensity and profound. Most of the borderline intellectual functioning symptoms are mild compared to other intellectual disabilities.

Mild symptoms and characteristics

They are barely noticeable and the children exhibit remotely average social skills. They can also execute various day to day activities. Also, they can integrate into society, although it is a struggle for them.

Poor concentration

Children with the condition have poor class concentration due to the inability to process spoken words fast enough – their brain is also not able to decode complex conversations. The child usually doesn’t pay attention in class since they can’t keep up and they opt to do other things instead. The symptoms may get confused for ADHD, which also includes symptoms like poor concentration. However, in this case, the child loses concentration because they do not understand what is being taught or said in class.

Slow response

Another easy to notice symptom is how responsive they are in class. Usually, a child suffering from borderline intellectual functioning is likely to respond much slower to learning and conversation cues than other children in the same age group.

General disorganization

Children with the condition suffer from an inability to master the art of critical thinking and hence their thoughts are not well structured. Teachers can notice this on their homework books where the homework or class work is disorganized and does not follow a particular order. Unlike dyslexia, where children are disorganized and also do not correctly write down letters, children with borderline intellectual functioning understand and can write letters properly – they just lack the ability to organize their thoughts.

Diagnosis for borderline intellectual functioning

Before you can conclude that your child is suffering from borderline intellectual functioning, there is a diagnostic criterion that doctors use to determine if the child fits into the category. Some of the criteria used include:

Avoidant behavior

The child goes to extreme ends to avoid a question or they completely abandon a situation when they need to use their cognitive function to work out a solution.

Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Due to the stigma they face and the bullying by other students, the children may hold pain inside, which can manifest into suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Constant irritation

Children with the condition are likely to get easily aggressive or irritated, especially when they meet a problem where they are supposed to bring forth a solution.

Lack of one’s identity

Children suffering from this condition lack identity. They are always thinking about what other people think of them, they always feel inadequate and believe everyone dislikes them. They do not know who they are and instead try to mask their inefficiencies by being someone else.

Borderline Intellectual Functioning Causes

Just like the name of the condition suggests, the main causal factor affects the brain and involves the brain’s development. Most of the time, conditions affecting normal brain functioning result from problems arising long before birth or an injury at a very tender age. In the case of borderline intellectual functioning, here are some of the known causes of the condition.


In most cases, borderline intellectual functioning results from the child inheriting a gene for the condition from a parent. Studies show that many intellectual disabilities result from abnormal genes. Some of the related intellectual disabilities also caused by abnormal genes include Down’s syndrome, anxiety disorders, and attention deficit disorder.

Physical causes

Physical causes of borderline intellectual disability involve any common lethal pathological infections that affect the baby at a tender age. Some of the common lethal infections that could lead to intellectual disability and of which babies become exposed to at a young age include: meningitis, measles, and whooping cough. Another major physical cause of the condition is acute malnutrition, lack of enough medical care or exposure to potentially lethal poisons for the brain like mercury or lead.

Environmental causes

Some of the common causal factors of borderline intellectual functioning are the result of environmental factors affecting fetal brain development, meaning the baby is born with the condition. Most of these environmental factors include alcohol indulgence during pregnancy, drugs and substance abuse, maternal malnutrition, and infections during pregnancy. Also, other problems could occur during child birth like extreme premature birth and oxygen deprivation, which can lead to brain damage, increasing the risk factors for intellectual disabilities.

Finally, brain injuries resulting from traumatizing experiences, near death drowning of the baby and extreme malnutrition can cause the onset of borderline intellectual functioning.

Treatments for Borderline Intellectual Functioning

Family therapy

The family is the first and the closest environment a child or individual suffering from the condition knows. Treatment starts at home before it gets to the school environment. Family therapy helps create awareness of the condition and how to treat it. Family therapy reduces the risk factor of the child getting poor parental care due to the parent learning how to handle the child.

Socio-cognitive skills training

Socio-cognitive skills training equips the child with ways to cope with life at school and at home. Due to the problems resulting from an inability to make decisions cognitively, the training will make it easier for the child to go with about day to day activities. The training helps the child live normally and equips them with skills to better integrate into society.

One on one therapy

One on one therapy involves a disability psychologist taking sessions with the patient to assess the various problems they face and give them a listening ear. The psychologist offers a helping hand and provides support for the child. The psychologist may also determine the beneficial services the child could get enrolled for. The professional also evaluates their progress to advise on what needs to change in the way the child gets treated.

Extra tutoring

Due to the effects of the condition, parents and teachers can deliberate on a teaching program that will involve extra tuition for the child in a bid to help them improve their intellectual abilities and catch up. Remember, borderline intellectual functioning is not a mental disability, but just a condition where individuals are a little slower than they should be.


When everything else fails to work, doctors or psychologists may recommend medication as a last option. The medication improves the cognitive function of the child and enhances brain performances to help the child think better and possess the ability to use reasoning to solve fundamental learning problems.

Borderline Intellectual Functioning Prevention

  1. Parents should maintain healthy pregnancies. Parents should abstain from drugs and substance abuse or alcohol during pregnancy to avoid a case where the fetus is born without a fully developed brain.
  2. Health care organizations should spread awareness on various causes of the condition to give parents insights on things to avoid or do to prevent their children from getting the condition.
  3. Pregnant women should stay away from lead polluted environments to protect their unborn from developing an intellectual disability due to the pollution. Awareness also applies in this case. Without awareness, mothers would not know how much the environment can affect the health of their baby.
Last Reviewed:
September 25, 2017
Last Updated:
November 17, 2017
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