Developmental Disabilities

Every happily expecting parent hopes for a healthy baby. Unfortunately, some parents discover early on through ultrasound or tests that that their baby has a developmental disability, such Spina Bifida or Down syndrome. Other developmental disabilities, such as hearing loss and developmental disorders become apparent during infancy and as a child becomes a toddler. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one or more developmental disabilities occur in about 15 percent of children 3 through 17 years old. Developmental disabilities occur among all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, yet they are more common in boys than girls.[1] Read on to find out more about developmental disabilities.

Definition of Developmental Disabilities

Developmental disability (DD) is an “umbrella term” for impairments in cognition, communication, hearing, vision, learning, mobility, self-care and/or behavior that are manifested prior to adulthood (by twenty-two years of age) and persist throughout one’s life.[1]

Types of Developmental Disabilities

The following are common types of developmental disabilities:

  • Cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that is caused by injury or abnormal development in the immature brain, most often before birth.[2]
  • Spina Bifida. Spina Bifida means “split spine.” Split spine happens when a baby is in the womb and the spinal column does not close all of the way.[3]
  • Down syndrome. Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome.[4]
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can include physical problems and problems with behavior and learning or often a mix of both.[5]
  • Hearing loss. A hearing loss can happen when any part of the ear (outer ear, middle ear, inner ear, hearing (acoustic) nerve, and auditory system) is not working in the usual way.[6]
  • Vision impairment. Vision loss means that a person’s eyesight is not corrected to a “normal” level. Vision loss can vary greatly among children and can be caused by many things.[7]
  • Intellectual disability (formerly called mental retardation). Intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) are disorders that are usually present at birth and that negatively affect the trajectory of the individual’s physical, intellectual, and/or emotional development. Problems might include the ability to learn, reason, and problem solve, as well as with adaptive behavior, which includes everyday social and life skills.[8]
  • Attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): ADHD is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity or a combination.[9]
  • Developmental disorders. Developmental disorders is a group of psychiatric conditions originating in childhood that involve serious impairment in different areas, including language and speech disorders; learning disorders; motor skills disorders; and social and emotional developmental delays, such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and Rett syndrome.[10]

Signs and Symptoms of Developmental Disabilities

Many times, a parent or pediatrician will notice that their child is not progressing at the same rate as other children who are the same age or that the child has not reached a developmental milestone at the expected times. Developmental milestones give a general idea of the changes to expect as a child gets older and include skills such as taking a first step, smiling for the first time, and waving “bye bye.” Children reach milestones in how they play, learn, speak, behave and move.[11] Delay can occur in one or many areas including, gross or fine motor, language, social or thinking skills. When children temporarily lag behind in development, this is not considered a developmental delay.[12]

Causes of Developmental Disabilities

For most developmental disabilities, the cause it not known, but are thought to be caused by a complex mix of factors that begin before a baby is born, or after birth because of injury, infection or other factors, including the following:[1]

  • Genetics
  • Parental health and behaviors (such as smoking and drinking) during pregnancy
  • Complications during birth
  • Infections the mother might have during pregnancy or the baby might have very early in life
  • Exposure of the mother or child to high levels of environmental toxins, such as lead

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes the following as known causes of specific developmental disabilities:[1]

  • At least 25% of hearing loss among babies is due to maternal infections during pregnancy, complications after birth, and head trauma.
  • Some of the most common known causes of intellectual disability include fetal alcohol syndrome; genetic and chromosomal conditions, such as Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome; and certain infections during pregnancy
  • Children who have a sibling or parent with an autism spectrum disorder are at a higher risk of also having an autism spectrum disorder.
  • Low birth weight, premature birth, multiple birth, and infections during pregnancy are associated with an increased risk for many developmental disabilities.
  • Untreated newborn jaundice can cause a type of brain damage known as kernicterus. Children with kernicterus are more likely to have cerebral palsy, hearing and vision problems and problems with their teeth.

Effects of Developmental Disabilities

The following health conditions have been found to be more common among children with developmental disabilities:[1]

  • Asthma
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Eczema and skin allergies
  • Migraine headaches

Treatments for Developmental Disabilities

Once a child is diagnosed with a developmental disability, early intervention is critical. Treatments such as socialization exercises and behavioral therapy may be used to reinforce and support positive behavior. In addition, treatments such as speech, physical therapy or occupational therapy can improve a child’s verbal, cognitive and social abilities and motor skills.[1]

In addition to therapy and counseling, medications intended to help normalize brain activity may be used to treat some developmental disorders, such as ADHD.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Developmental Disabilities. Retrieved June 5, 2013, from
  2. Mayo Clinic.Cerebral palsy definition. Retrieved June 8, 2013, from
  3. Spina Bifida Association. What is Spina Bifida? Retrieved June 8, 2013, from
  4. National Down Syndrome Society. What is Down syndrome? Retrieved June 6, 2013, from
  5. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Center for Excellence. Welcome. Retrieved June 5, 2013, from
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hearing loss in children. Retrieved June 3, 2013, from
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vision Loss Fact Sheet. [PDF] Retrieved June 8, 2013, from
  8. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDDs): Condition Information. Retrieved June 5, 2013, from
  9. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Attention deficient hyperactivity disorder. Retrieved January 30, 2013, from
  10. Michael Rutter, Dorothy V. M. Bishop, Daniel S. Pine, Stephen Scott, Jim Stevenson, Eric Taylor, Anita Thapar, ed. (2008). Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Fifth Edition. Dorothy Bishop and Michael Rutter. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 32–33.
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Developmental Milestones. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  12. Nulton Diagnostic & Treatment Center. Developmental Disorders. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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