What are Developmental Disorders?

J.M. Willhite

Developmental disorders are conditions that impair a child's physical, social, and psychological development and manifest before the age of 18. A broad spectrum of disorders are classified as developmental in nature and vary in severity and expression. Treatment for a developmental disorder is often dependent on the nature, degree, and manifestation of the impairment. With early intervention, the prognosis for an individual with a developmental disorder is favorable with proper support, treatment, and therapy.

A child with a developmental disorder.
A child with a developmental disorder.

Life-long cognitive and physical restrictions that impair an individual's ability to function are known as developmental disabilities and are classified as a developmental disorder. Individuals who are diagnosed with a form of developmental disorder, such as Down syndrome or an intellectual disability, may exhibit difficulty functioning and need assistance with independent living skills, learning, and self-care and direction. In cases of an intellectual disability, an early diagnosis is difficult to confirm unless a secondary condition, such as Down syndrome, is present.

Early diagnosis of a deveolmental disorder may be hard to obtain unless a condition such as Down's syndrome is present.
Early diagnosis of a deveolmental disorder may be hard to obtain unless a condition such as Down's syndrome is present.

Pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs) are a group of disorders characterized by an impairment of multiple functions, including communication and socialization skills. Also known as Autism spectrum disorders, these disorders include Asperger's syndrome, Autism, Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD). The abilities, behaviors, and aptitude of children with a PDD diagnosis are as varied as the symptoms that accompany its associated disorders.

Symptom onset for PDDs generally occurs before a child turns three years old. Parents may notice the child has a difficult time with language, trouble relating to and interacting with his or her surroundings, and does not adapt well to change. Children with a pervasive developmental disorder may also exhibit repetitive behaviors or body movements. Some children with PDD are nonverbal, while others are able to speak, but possess a limited vocabulary and speak in short phrases.

A diagnosis of a PDD is usually made by examining family history and conducting a physical examination. There is no single diagnostic test to definitively confirm a diagnosis, nor is there a cure for PDD. Treatment for this class of disorders generally includes the use of medications and individualized therapy.

Similar to PDD is another class of disorders, referred to as specific developmental disorders (SDDs). These disorders affect a single area of a child's development. Divided into distinct categories, specific developmental disorders affect speech and language, scholastic skills, and motor function.

Language disorders associated with SDD include lisping, stuttering, and aphasias, which are characterized by a loss or impairment of communication skills. Learning disorders include dyslexia, an inability to spell and read, math disability known as dyscalculia, and a writing deficiency known as dysgraphia. Individuals with an SDD-associated impairment of motor function may exhibit a lack of physical coordination as associated with some aspects of developmental dyspraxia. Specific developmental disorders are often treated with physiotherapy, occupational and speech therapies, and individualized tutoring and instruction.

Developmental disorders can significantly interfere with a child's academic achievements.
Developmental disorders can significantly interfere with a child's academic achievements.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel -- Wow. That's sad about that little boy. I know his parents were devastated.

I know that, regardless of the developmental disorder, that early intervention is key. Frequently, parents notice something about autistic children even before they are a year old. Many do not like being held, and there are other signs something may be amiss.

A friend of mine adopted an autistic son. They got him when he was three and he's now eight. He has some pretty serious issues, some of which stem from the complete lack of any enrichment he received from his biological egg donor (I refuse to call that woman a "parent" in any sense of the word). Until he went to live with my friend as a foster child, he was pretty much left alone all day, completely ignored, etc. It's bad enough for a neurotypical child, but for an autistic child, it's horrific.


A co-worker of mine had a son with Down Syndrome. He was not diagnosed very early because it was a home birth, although the midwife did tell them she thought the baby might have the disorder and they needed to get him checked out. His parents were both past 40 when he was born.

When they did get a diagnosis, they immediately started getting therapy of every description for him and he was the happiest child I have ever seen. Sadly, he passed away not long after his second birthday, but he is fondly remembered by all who knew him.

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