Developmental Disorders

While it’s easy to assume a child is lazy, uninterested in school or activities, not friendly or that he or she lacks discipline, many times a child’s inability to focus, perform in school or socialize is due to a developmental disorder. Rearing its head most often by the time a child is a toddler, developmental disorders range from speech and learning delays to social and emotional delays. With early identification and intervention, children with developmental disorders can get the help they need to lead normal and fulfilling lives.[1] Read on to find out more about developmental disorders.

Definition of Developmental Disorders

Developmental disorders fall under the “umbrella term” developmental disability, which includes impairments in cognition, communication, hearing, vision, learning, mobility, self-care and/or behavior that are manifested prior to adulthood and persist throughout one’s life.[2]

Developmental disorders are a group of psychiatric conditions originating in childhood that involve serious impairment in different areas. The term is used in different ways and the most narrow concept is used in the category “Specific Disorders of Psychological Development” in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list by the World Health Organization. This category includes language disorders, learning disorders, motor disorders and autism spectrum disorders. In broader definitions, the term neurodevelopmental disorders is used and includes attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).[3]

Types of Developmental Disorders

There is a wide spectrum of developmental disorders. The following are the most common:

Language and speech disorders: Language disorder in children refers to problems with either getting their meaning or message across to others (expressive language disorder), or understanding the message coming from others (receptive language disorder).[4]

Learning disorders: Learning disorders affect how a person understands, remembers and responds to new information. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognizes four types of learning disorders, including reading disorders; mathematics disorders; disorders of written expression; and learning disorders not otherwise specified.[5]

Motor skills disorder: Also called motor coordination disorder and motor dyspraxia, this is a disorder that affects motor skill development. Children with dyspraxia have trouble planning and completing fine motor tasks, varying from simple tasks such as waving goodbye to complex tasks like brushing teeth.[6]

Social and emotional developmental delays. Children may experience problems interacting with adults or other children, which can be caused by neglect from early institutionalization or parental neglect; ineffective parenting or attachment problems; cognitive delays; or pervasive developmental disorder (PDD).[7]. PDD includes the following:

  • Autism. Autism is an umbrella term used to describe a number of conditions that exist along a spectrum. Spectrum disorders range from mild to severe; some autistic people have severe limitations, while others appear to be able to function normally or even have superior abilities. All people with autism have difficulties with social and communication skills because their brains process information differently than non-autistic people’s brains do.[8]
  • Asperger’s syndrome. Asperger’s syndrome affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others. Children with Asperger’s syndrome typically exhibit social awkwardness and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics.[9]
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder. Childhood disintegrative disorder is a condition in which children develop normally through age 3 or 4. Then, over a few months, children lose language, motor, social and other skills that they already learned.[10]
  • Rett syndrome. Rett syndrome is primarily discussed as a neurological disorder, or a developmental disorder, that affects girls almost exclusively. It is characterized by normal early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability.[11]
  • Attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): ADHD is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity or a combination.[12]

If a delay occurs in many or all of the above areas, it is called “global developmental delay.”[7]

Signs and Symptoms of Developmental Disorders

Many times, a parent 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 are 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.[13] Delay can occur in one or many areas—for example, gross or fine motor, language, social or thinking skills. When children temporarily lag behind in development, this is not considered a developmental delay.[14]

In some cases, a pediatrician might pick up a delay during an office visit based on screening tools, and make a referral to a developmental specialist for diagnosis.[14]

Causes of Developmental Disorders

The specific cause of many developmental disorders is not known, however developmental delay can have many different causes, such as genetic and environmental reasons or complications of pregnancy and birth, such as prematurity or infections.[15]

Treatments for Developmental Disorders

Once a child’s medical history and cognitive abilities and behavior patterns are assessed by medical professionals and a diagnosis is determined, 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 dramatically improve a child’s verbal, cognitive and social abilities and motor skills.[13]

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. National University Hospital. Life Line. Developmental Disorders in Children. [PDF] Retrieved June 1, 2013, from
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheet: Developmental Disabilities. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  3. 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.
  4. MedlinePlus. Language disorder-children. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  5. Boston Children’s Hospital. Learning disorders. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  6. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Motor dyspraxia. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  7. WebMD. Recognizing Developmental Delays in Children. Retrieved June 5, 2013, from
  8. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about Autistic Spectrum Disorders. (March 29, 2012). Retrieved July 16, 2012, from
  9. Mayo Clinic. Asperger’s syndrome. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  10. MedlinePlus. Childhood disintegrative disorder. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  11. National Institutes of Health. Rett Syndrome Fact Sheet. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  12. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Attention deficient hyperactivity disorder. Retrieved January 30, 2013, from
  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Developmental Milestones. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  14. Nulton Diagnostic & Treatment Center. Developmental Disorders. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from
  15. University of Michigan Health System. Developmental Delay. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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