BACKGROUND: It has been proposed that people with intellectual disability (ID) might be similar to the general population in the way they respond to significant life events. Some preliminary findings have demonstrated that adults with ID who have experienced recent life events have an increased probability of having psychiatric problems. The aims of the present study were to determine whether previous findings can be replicated, and to examine the influence of additional diagnoses associated with ID on the strength of relationships between life event frequency and psychiatric problems. METHODS: Adults with ID (n = 624), living either in staffed community accommodation or in family or foster homes, were assessed on the Developmental Behaviour Checklist for Adults (DBC-A) and a 37-item life events checklist. Carers who knew the person well acted as proxy informants. RESULTS: People living in staffed accommodation experienced more life events than people living with natural or foster families. Life event frequency predicted DBC-A total score, five of six sub-scale scores, and caseness status, after significant demographic factors were taken into account. However, the strength of correlations between life event frequency and DBC-A total score varied among sub-groups identified by type of developmental disability and level of ID. CONCLUSIONS: Weak but significant associations between emotional and behavioural problems and life events experienced by adults with ID were demonstrated, but it was also shown that the strength of such associations varies among sub-groups of this heterogeneous population. Future research needs to take account of the circumstances surrounding the life changes, the period of time over which changes might have taken place, and the meaning that the person might attach to the changes. Research into the causal relationship between exposure to life events and the onset of psychiatric problems is also warranted.