Emotional Development As It Relates to Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities #AtoZChallenge

Hello everyone. For my letter E post in the #AtoZChallenge on disability, I’d like to talk about emotional development. This is one of my pet peeves, as I myself am considered as having a very significant gap between my intellectual and my emotional level of functioning. For people with an intellectual disability, this is often the case too. In an ideal situation, regardless of developmental level, a person’s intellectual and emotional functioning are in sync. That way, after all, they can more or less be understood like you would a child of their developmental age. (I know that infantilizing disabled people is highly discriminatory, so it’s more complicated than that. For the purpose of this blog post though, I will not go into that. And, for the record, I personally find the concept quite useful for myself.)

The concept of emotional development in intellectual disability here in the Netherlands is most well-known from child psychiatrist Anton Došen. Došen wrote a book on working with developmental ages. He explained about intellectual and emotional development. People’s emotional development rarely surpasses their intellectual level.

In the book, he detailed either seven or five stages of child emotional development. I say possibly seven because a typically-developing child goes through seven stages, but intellectually disabled people aren’t presumed to reach an intellectual level beyond that comparable of a twelve-year-old child. For this reason, Došen postulates that the last two stages aren’t relevant to people with intellectual disabilities.

The stages are:

  1. adaptation phase: 0-6 months. Babies learn to adapt to the world outside of the womb. Babies will not yet explore the world around them, but will explore their own bodies. They will learn to adapt to temperature changes, sensory stimuli, etc. People stuck in this stage will usually show severe agitation when overstimulated, but they are not able to consciously direct this at other people or their environment. Disabled people stuck just in this stage are usually profoundly and multiply impaired, although people with severe mental illness or developmental disabilities such as autism may regress into this stage at times. I, for one, do.

  2. First socialization phase: 6-18 months. This is the stage in which a child (or disabled person stuck in this stage) will be focused primarily on the caretaker as an extension of themself. Secure attachment is of prime importance for children at this age and insecurely attached individuals might be stuck at this stage (again, me). Many individuals with less severe intellectual disabilities or even no intellectual disability at all, are emotionally at this level (like myself). They, like individuals stuck in the first stage, require individual support.

  3. First individuation phase: 18-36 months. During this stage, children learn that they are their own person separate from the caretaker. This can lead to conflicts related to their need for autonomy vs. their need for care. They, like children in the previous stage, experience separation anxiety. It is also common for individuals stuck at this stage, particularly more verbally capable ones like myself when I’m well, to engage in power struggles. Think of the “Terrible Twos”. Individuals who function at this level, will be able to cope with less one-on-one support.

  4. Identification phase: 3-7 years. During this phase, children learn to identify with important role models such as their caretakers and learn social rules and norms from them. Early on in this stage, children will still often feel tempted to do things that aren’t okay, but later on, they will learn to follow socially-accepted rules even when the caretaker isn’t present. Children or people who function at this level often come across as self-centered because they are unable to see things from another’s point of view. For this reason, they can (unintentionally) hurt each other. The ability to understand another’s viewpoint doesn’t develop until a child is about six-years-old. Individuals in this stage can be supported from a distance (in a group setting), but will need individual support when stressed.

  5. Sense of reality: 7-12 years. During this phase, children are usually in primary school, so contact with peers is more important than contact with caretakers. Children will learn to think logically and their distress tolerance will increase. Individuals in this stage need less support than those in the previous stages. It is more important to negotiate responsibilities with the client and to discuss conflict situations after they’ve occurred. I, honestly, cannot relate to anything within the description for this phase.

The next two phases are the second socialization and second individuation phase, which are usually only reached by typically-developing young people. I have not been able to find information on these stages yet.

The scale for emotional development used in the Netherlands for understanding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, makes use of eight different domains of emotional development, on which a person can be scored differently. For instance, on the domain of body awareness, someone might score as functioning between 0-6 months, while in the area of handling material, that same person might be seen as functioning like someone between 7-12 years. Someone can also regress back into an earlier phase when under severe stress.

4 thoughts on “Emotional Development As It Relates to Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities #AtoZChallenge

  1. What is the difference between the separation anxiety at the first socialisation and the first individuation stage?

    And did the individuation stage build on the socialisation stage in this respect?

    What happens if and when it is disrupted in some fashion?

    And I know that blogging encourages people to meet at intellectual developmental level[s] unless the content is strongly emotional or one or both of the readers and writers are severely stressed.

    Good point about how emotional development rarely surpasses intellectual development.

    [and physical and social development are relevant here too].

    He knew about caregivers and caretakers.

    The first individuation phase reminds me of Eriksen’s Autonomy and Shame – the conflicts.

    And there are two Piagetian stages which half of typically developing young people do not achieve [including at least one US President].

    Wonderbaby.org has had some good information about cognitive and emotional development – which is on a British or Irish or American model.

    [about the unoccupied stage of play for instance]

    And then there is the question on how peers may take on a caregiving role/become caretakers.

    Identification – I know that very often 4 and 5 year olds want to be like other people and see how they ARE like other people – or become unwound when they are treated UNLIKE other people or people they identify with.

    And the whole “support from a distance” is behind a lot of child care and early education. A lot of people are pushed into this stage before they are developmentally ready [or they may never be developmentally ready] even though this is their chronological age.

    Or some may become peer-dependent much earlier than this model suggests. Because peers are more reliable and available than caregivers or models.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your extensive comment. I haven’t been able to fully figure out how separation anxiety differs between the second and third stages, but I think people in the first individuation stage know that their caretaker still exists when they’re out of sight, whereas those in the first socialization phase don’t yet have the object permanence for that. The way I explain it (being on the border of these two stages usually), when someone’s out of earshot, I do know that they haven’t magically vanished out of existence but they might just as easily be on the North Pole.

      By the way, where did I say it is recommended to meet someone at their intellectual rather than emotional level? In fact, the contrary is true, although in people with a significant discrepancy between the two, it is often a balancing act.


      1. Morning, Astrid:

        Glad you shared your understanding and knowledge which might help people meet other people where they are.

        {Really, on reflection, throwing THREE questions at once}

        The “North Pole” analogy does make sense.

        I sometimes/often feel that people outside my immediate purview – might as well be on the dark side of the Moon.

        On meeting people at their levels and on the level:

        I was speaking more about the interactions we take when blogging – when we read a blog and when we write them.

        Especially something like the A-Z challenge.

        Text can make it hard to judge and distinguish emotional content.

        Intellectual content can be more easily met.

        We do have our own biases and preconceptions in this area.

        I like to say:

        Meeting someone at their intellectual level begets respect; and meeting someone emotionally/at their emotional level begets honesty and vulnerability.

        This can happen at one time; or many times over the course of weeks; months; years – and many different kinds of interactions.

        And this is where AD and his theories on the role of the caregiver come in.

        Some people might have their defences aroused and thus act defensively.

        Whether these defences come from their emotions or their intellect – they can have a real effect on people.

        And 35 percent of people are insecurely attached [avoidantly; anxiously and disorganised].

        [that figure comes from typically developing people. Intellectually disabled people may be insecurely attached at a greater magnitude and/or their attachments may be less complex].

        Some people think of *themselves* as an extension and/or projection of the caregiver – and are treated that way.

        [like people in social media websites].

        The caregiver being the person or people who sees you at your best and your worst and everything in between.


        I appreciate your honesty about not being able to relate to anything in the “sense of reality” stage.

        It seems this is a sense of reality which is mediated by the person in and with others and other-directed situations.

        And also: even the most able intellectually disabled people appear to reach a ceiling on “sense of reality”.

        Also: most people without an intellectual disability are not encouraged to develop beyond this sense of reality or outside of it in their society and community.

        And the second socialisation and the second individuation – do they tend to solidify this “sense of reality” or more towards the opposite?

        Responsibilities and conflict seem to be important catalysts for development – whereas they may confuse or destabilise people who have not attained the ability to develop within them

        [which creates or makes trauma and stress worse].

        And it is possible that intellectually disabled people attain emotional levels beyond 12-year-olds through life experience [when that is delayed and/or disordered].


        I recognised you in the last paragraph because of previous discussions.

        [the one about the eight domains]


        Again – some caregivers/caretakers may be unable or unwilling to deal on the emotional level because of their own stuff or because of society and community.

        And some caregivers might be pleased with the verbal struggles because they show progress or being out of a stage that they themselves are uncomfortable with/confronted by.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks again for taking the time to comment. Sorry I’m so late getting back to you. Yes, I sort of realized you were talking about blogging. However, in blogging we can’t do much but call onto someone’s intellectual ability even when someone’s post is highly emotional. Meeting someone at their emotional level, presuming that’s indeed lower than their intellectual level, requires really expecting less emotional intelligence from them, such as less theory of mind etc. I struggle with this when staff ask me to put myself in their shoes. Intellectually, I might be able to do it when they explain how they feel but I can’t connect it to my emotional state even if that state resonates with them.

          Re the eight domains, yes, that example actually refers to me.


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