Which border is Borderline Intellectual Functioning on?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Crossing the border.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

What is Borderline Intellectual Functioning?

Borderline Intellectual Functioning (BIF) is one of several totally unrelated conditions that are officially or unofficially called borderline only because they are on the edge or junction of some other condition. BIF is in no way related to Borderline Personality Disorder.

Borderline Intellectual Functioning is a designation for some individuals who find it hard to learn some information. It sometimes gets confused and mixed up with several types of ADHD or the older label ADD.

The definition of BIF is totally determined by the person’s IQ score. Stay with me here as I explain this. I will give you the exact numbers as we go.

There is also a lot of prejudice about anyone with a low I.Q. score even though some low I.Q. scoring people are extremely talented in areas that are not captured on an I.Q. test.

When discussing I.Q scores we need to be very careful. First, they do NOT mean what many people think they mean, and since they are mathematical numbers being somehow attached to non-mathematical people we need to talk some statistic-number-stuff to explain this one. I will keep the number stuff extra simple.

The companies that make the tests try to improve the test over time but there is only so much you can do in trying to give a test that somehow is meant, to sum up, a person’s abilities. We believe that  I. Q. is made up, not of one single ability, but a whole host of talents. Verbal and mathematical talents are easy to capture with a written test, musical, artistic, and athletic talents may not show up so much.

There is also evidence of something called E. Q. (Emotional intelligence.) We all know someone who is very bright in school but is no good with people and there are those individuals who are good with people or animals but can’t pass a written test.

Many, but not all I. Q. and related tests, are biased towards how many words you know. Want to score well on a lot of ability tests – learn all the words you can.

The scores are designed to measure how someone’s test score compares to other people. We still can’t find any “normal” people to compare others to so we create an imaginary “normal” person by averaging all the scores we get and saying that average (or mean or mode) is somehow the “normal” person.

I.Q. tests are set up so that the “average” score is 100. Theoretically, if you test enough people the most common score is 100. But scores vary an awful lot. So is someone with a 99 really less smart than someone who scores a 101? Not very much.

If you take this kind of test many times you will get many scores. So some days you, one single individual will be “smarter” than on others.

One day the average person scores a 95. We could call that below normal. The next day they get a 105 and are above average. So we learn to use ranges of scores, not just the number.

Turns out that the largest group of people will score between 85 and 115 on most tests. (For the math people the standard deviation here is 15.) This group will contain just under 70% of all humans.

We consider this whole range of people 85-115 more or less the same. Since scores of one person may move up or down 5 points from day-to-day we need to look at the people just outside that range.

So are people above 115 really smart, geniuses maybe? Not that often. It may be easier for someone with an I.Q of 125 to get A’s in school but we all have heard of very bright people who fail school and less smart people who study really hard and get good grades.

For most purposes, we don’t see a lot of differences in individuals till we get out to two standard deviations. People who score between 70 and 130 all fall within the “average” group. This group covers about 97.5 % of all people. Only those below 70 and above 130, start to get extra special labels.

Really high scores might get the label “genius.” But some of them still do some dumb things. It may be a lot easier for the person who has an I.Q. of 125 to do a book report and someone with a score of 90 may struggle on a math assignment or vice versa, but we think anyone in that range, with a good education, can do this stuff.

Now back to Borderline Intellectual Functioning. The definition of BIF is an I. Q. Score of 71-84. The person with this score is on the low end of what we would consider an “average” or “normal” person.

Telling someone they or their child has a low score on an I. Q. test is likely to upset them. They want us to do something.

Most of us understand when a kid is too small or skinny to be good at football. We accept that a really short kid will not do so well in basketball. Most of us get this. Except sometimes parents want their kid to be good at a sport so badly that they push this kid unmercifully to grow more and get taller. Don’t get me started on the long-term damage wanting your kid to be something they are not can do to that child.

Not very many parents want to accept that their kid has fewer math or spelling circuits in their brain. So when they get the results of the I.Q. test they want something to make their kid smarter. Lots of kids in the lower normal I.Q. score range get low grades, get discouraged, and stop caring about school work. Then they get diagnosed with ADHD and given a stimulant medication. It may boost their test scores a little, for a while, but it does not make them develop a higher I.Q.

Many people with BIF do graduate from school, get jobs, and have happy productive lives. The task for them is to find the other areas in life for which they have abilities and then accept that some school type things may be harder for them than for people with more skill in another area.

My belief is we need to stop telling our kids that they need to be on the football team and get straight A’s and begin to accept that everyone has different talents. What are your talents and what are you doing with them?

For more on the Mental Health treatment of Borderline intellectual functioning see the post on V codes.

There, I will climb down off my soapbox, — for now.

Did that help you understand Borderline Intellectual Functioning?

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

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20 thoughts on “Which border is Borderline Intellectual Functioning on?

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  2. I know this is an older post but I stumbled across it in research and wanted to comment! My son was assessed for autism last year at age 6 and was found to “not quite” meet ASD criteria. However, they administered the DAS-II and he got a Global Composite Score of 79. However, there was significant “subtest scatter” and the composite score reflects an average of the 3 subtest scores together. (Not sure if it is exactly an “average” but you know what I mean.) The problem I see is that my son’s verbal subscore was normal-average, but his nonverbal and spatial scores were much lower-resulting in the psychologist giving him the BIF diagnosis as they “lowered” his global score compared to the verbal score. Particularly his spatial cluster score was so low, 1st percentile, that I can’t possibly believe he was compliant during the test. (He has oppositional-defiant behaviors too.) I am skeptical of the visual-spatial score because he does quite well with Legos and Snap Circuits, able to put complicated projects together from the visual instructions. He also shows a lot of strengths in memory and problem-solving. He started reading at age 3. Don’t get me wrong-he has challenges. He has an IEP and gets help at school and from private therapists. Processing issues, social communication and physical coordination are all challenges. But I was so perturbed by this diagnosis that I would not go back to that clinic. It was especially galling that the psychologist explained at length that the discrepancies in the subscores made him take the GCA of 79 with a grain of salt-but then still proceeded to give that diagnosis to him! I did a bit of research and found mixed information about subtest scatter. I am about to get him re-evaluated at a different clinic. Any thoughts?


    • It will make a difference if the professional is using the DSM-4-TR or the DSM-5 to make the diagnosis. There may be other differences if the diagnosing is done in Europe. We used to do a lot of hair splitting because they thought Autism and Aspergers were different things. The newer way of thinking is that they are the same thing just on a spectrum.
      Sounds like your son has a high IQ which helps people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder function and sometimes keeps them out of services. the only reason any of this matters is to determine what extra services someone may be willing to pay for. Otherwise most of the treatment would be the same whether he gets the diagnosis or not. The kid has problems then the kid needs help in my opinion.


  3. I guess I have BIF, and having difficulty w/ add, because of this am having a hard time getting a job, and I reckon when I was on a workplace, its hard for me to follow instructions or learn certain things, its very depressing, I just wish there would be some jobs open for people who have BIF…


    • It might be worth seeing a career counselor or psychologist and see if they can help you. There are jobs that fit most anyone including those with learning disabilities, ADD and BIF. Do not give up and keep looking.


      • Contact your state Vocational Rehabilitation office, as an employment specialist that works with my state office I know that there are resources available, at least it works that way in my area. There may be assistance in finding a job that is the right fit for you, help with interviewing if needed, and even job coaching depending on what your state has allocated funds for. There is even educational assistance if that is the right fit for you and again what your state is set up for. I assist people with this and several other disabilities some are visible and others are not.

        Hope that helps, thanks for the info from the writer of the article, as I am still new I am researching more information on the various diagnosis of my clients so I can better understand and help them find the best vocational fit for them, this was very helpful information.


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  12. Thank you for your comments. We adopted two girls as babies (sisters). One has been tested below 70 and is in special ed. classes and is doing well. The other has been a frustration to us – never interested in doing well in school, barely passing,etc. We finally had her tested and learned that she fell into the range of BIF. She was 15 and this was one year ago. I believe that schools teach to the average range and she was always frustrated. I am now home schooling her which isn’t always fun, but I have learned what her instructional level is and she is doing well. Next year she will go back to public school part time. I believe in the IQ tests to help us see where the children fit in academia. In life, that number doesn’t predict their success, but always being a failure at school places them in a cycle of rejection and other negative emotions. In fifth grade my daughter got a “D” on a test and was kicked off the cheerleading squad for a week. It happened to be the last week – full of parties and a special dance rehearsal and performance. If an “A” student had gotten a “C”, she would not have been kicked off. But this was the policy and all children are the same!
    I consider BIF a hidden disability. There is a blog/web site for families with hidden disabilites called Chosenfamilies.org. Thanks again. Jan


    • Thanks for sharing your story and for sharing that resource. You are so right about BIF being a hidden disability. Most mental and emotional problems go unrecognized as disabilities just because people look so normal even when they have severe difficulties to overcome.


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  14. As a school psychologist, I would like to say that there are so many factors that need to be taken into account. For example, if someone has a processing disability, that disability can be factored in to create a more realistic score. Also, if there is a second language learner involved, only a non-verbal test would be appropriate. Everyone knows traditional IQ tests are culturally biased and a good psychologist will use things like adaptability and social functioning where culture is an issue. Yes, you’re right about different kinds of intelligence and lots of people who make the most money in our society are probably not scoring the highest scores on IQ tests. The happiest people probably are not either (due to that thing called “EQ” (Emotional Intelligence) you mentioned. Your ranges were off from what is usually practiced in our profession: Borderline is 70-79, 80-89 is low average, 90-109 Average, 110-119 High Average, 120-129 Superior. I personally have measured kid’s IQ at 89-95 and they have been straight A students (with one or two class exceptions) due to what looks to be parental involvement (perhaps pressure or incentives) & things like study skills and organization. I’ve also seen students with IQs over 120 fail classes for lack of motivation (I never call it boredom but other school psychs do). I think it has to do with everything coming easy for these intellectually gifted individuals so they never developed study skills. Last comment: The whole point of these numbers/ ranges is usually about helping the individual function in major life activities (like school) so if an individual is truly functioning in a Borderline range, the goal should be about determing their strengths and providing help such as tutoring.


    • Thanks for all that great information. English as a second language is always an issue. Bilingual people need to know twice as many words as English only speakers. With people for whom English is a second language, I would prefer to use an I.Q. test in their first language if possible. The scores I used for Borderline Intellectual Functioning (BIF) are from the American Psychological Association (APA) DSM-4-TR page 740. The code for BIF is V71.02. It separates Borderline Intellectual Function which would be diagnosed as an area of treatment at 71-84 from mental retardation, any I.Q score of 70 and below. None of the other ranges of scores and labels in your comment are in the DSM. This is the result of Psychiatrists and mental health clinicians speaking a different language and mean different things when we talk about intellectual abilities than educators. The educational psychologist is seeing learning issues and I am looking at the emotional issues that come up as a result of not meeting someone’s expectations. Processing Disabilities or any other disability are also not a diagnosable mental illness for us in the DSM but “Specific Learning Disorders” are. When I switch from my therapist role to teaching and back I have to remember to switch hats and vocabulary. No wonder parents get confused when we try to tell them what their child’s issues are.
      Thanks for the comment and hope you will jump in again in the future.


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