Can You Get Social Security Disability Benefits for Intellectual Disability?

Often, our Indiana social security attorney gets calls from parents inquiring about seeking disability for their children with intellectual disability. Sometimes, the children are adults themselves. I am writing to describe the background and advice I give to these parents.

“Intellectual disability” is what used to be referred to as mental retardation. Several years ago, the Social Security Administration made this terminology change. Nonetheless, the listing numbers for the impairment are still 12.05 for adults and 112.05 for children. Listings are medical criteria Social Security uses to evaluate various impairments. Someone with an IQ under 70 could be considered disabled under these listings. To qualify under the listing, the person would also need to exhibit very significant difficulty in: (a) understanding, remembering, or applying information; (b) interacting with others; (c) concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and/or (d) adapting or managing him/herself.    

Child Cases

It’s important to keep in mind that for a child to be eligible, the family needs to satisfy financial eligibility requirements. This means that a very wealthy family could not receive disability even if they have a child with profound intellectual disability. However, the income limitations are not as low as you may think and if you have a child with intellectual disability and neither you nor your spouse are extremely high earners, it’s worth looking into Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program, which may provide benefits for the disabled child.

Sometimes a child with intellectual disabling will have other mental problems. We call these “co-morbid” impairments. Examples include autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), anxiety, or a mood disorder like depression or bipolar. In this situation, a Social Security decision make should consider the combined effects of all the impairments. Specifically, the decision maker should consider problems the child has in the following “domains:” (1) acquiring and using information; (2) attending and completing tasks; and (3) interacting and relating with others. If the decision maker concludes that a child has “marked” (particularly severe) limitations in two of these domains, the claim should be approved.

Some cases involve profound intellectual disability, such as when the intellectual disability is so severe that the child cannot even participate in IQ testing. These cases could be approved based on the results of a few examinations. Other cases may require consideration of more evidence. For example, a decision maker could consider school records (including any Individualized Educational Plan or “IEP” in place), notes from mental health professionals such as counselors and psychiatrists, pediatrician records, and documentation from any hospitalization or specialist treatment. While statements from family members should also be considered, a case will not be approved on this basis alone. Every claim needs to be supported by documentary evidence like medical and educational records.

Adult Cases

The most important thing I would like to convey to parents of young adults with intellectual disability is don’t delay in seeking disability benefits. It’s not uncommon for me to get a call from a parent who has an intellectually disabled child in their 30s or 40s. The parent has been supporting the child for years but is getting older and has started to worry about what will happen to their child when they can no longer support them. While of course I am happy to talk to these parents and help them if possible, this is not the ideal time to be initiating a disability claim. By this age, the relevant school records are likely to have been discarded under normal record keeping procedures. If the adult child has not been in regular mental health treatment, we can be faced with a situation in which there is little to no documentation available to support the claim. By this time in the adult child’s life, several things may have happened which could cause a decision maker to be unfairly skeptical of the disability. The adult child may have found an opportunity for supported employment which resulted a period of time during which they were earning regular income. The decision maker may then think that this person is capable of continuing to earn income like this. The adult child may have made a mistake that has resulted in legal trouble or some documentation of drug or alcohol use. These issues can bias a decision maker. But probably the biggest problem with this situation is that the delay will result in skepticism because a decision maker will wonder why you didn’t apply earlier.

The listing for intellectual disability (12.05) provides that for someone to meet this listing, the evidence should support a conclusion that the disorder began before age 22. The farther someone gets from this age, the harder it is going to be to prove a disabling intellectual disability.

For all of these reasons, even if you are currently able to support your adult child with intellectual disability, you should pursue the benefits as soon as possible. Not only does this help maximize the lifetime value of the benefit, it will give you peace of mind about your child’s financial security as you grow older. Moreover, those found disabled before the age of 22 may receive additional money from Social Security if a parent is retired, deceased, or disabled. This is known as a “Childhood Disability Benefit,” which is somewhat of a confusing name because it is a benefit for adults. But it is an insurance benefit based on the parent’s earnings record and therefore may be more valuable than the Supplemental Security Income benefit this person would otherwise be eligible for.

Generally, the adult disability program is intended to provide income replacement for those whose impairments make them unable to hold a regular job on a full-time basis. The evolution of technology and the economy has taken us to a point where someone with an intellectual disability may struggle even more to sustain regular work now than they would have in the past. Nonetheless, Social Security still utilizes an employment resource, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, which has not been updated in decades. This is one more reason to have an attorney on your side who can make sure the claim is fairly evaluated. If you have a child with disability, you may be able to tell Social Security about their limitations and daily struggles, but issues like these require the expertise of a skilled intellectual disability attorney

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