Developmental disorders, also called neurodevelopmental disorders or childhood disorders, are neurologically-based conditions that can affect the acquisition, retention, or application of specific skills. Individuals with a developmental disorder may experience dysfunction in memory, perception, attention, language, problem-solving, or social interaction.
While mental disorders and developmental disabilities affect learning processes and behavior, it’s important to remember that they aren’t the same. In the case of pervasive developmental disorders, individuals often lack the cognitive ability to understand certain thoughts. While a developmental disorder may interfere with learning, a mental illness does not directly affect cognitive abilities. Instead, mental disorders change an individual’s thought processes and perceptions.
Mental disorders can occur at any stage of life—from adolescence through adulthood. Meanwhile, developmental disabilities usually begin during early childhood, may impact day-to-day functioning, and can last a person’s lifetime. While some neurological disorders are easily managed with behavioral and educational interventions, others may require additional support.
How common are developmental disorders?
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), developmental disabilities occur among all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. In the United States, about one in six children ages 3 through 17 have at least one developmental disorder. However, the prevalence of each type of developmental disorder varies.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, intellectual disabilities affect approximately one percent of the population, of which about 85 percent experience a mild intellectual disability. One of the most common developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), occurs in approximately one in 59 children.
Some children with developmental problems may also experience behavioral issues or mental disorders. According to the CDC, 6 in 10 children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have at least one other mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, or schizophrenia.
Most developmental disabilities involve a complex mix of risk factors, including genetics, parental behaviors (such as smoking and drinking during pregnancy), birth complications, gene mutations, and exposure to environmental toxins.
Types of Developmental Disorders
There are several different types of neurodevelopmental disorders, and each type of disorder can vary in severity. Some common types of developmental disorders include:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Cerebral palsy
- Learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and other learning disabilities
- Intellectual disability, such as fragile X syndrome
- Rett syndrome
Symptoms of childhood disorders typically occur in young children, and most developmental problems are diagnosed in school-aged children. Missing early developmental milestones such as smiling, waving, or walking may be an indication that your child has a developmental disorder or delay, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
While all children develop differently, those who fail to develop a skill within a reasonable time may be experiencing a developmental issue. Consequently, it’s important to keep up with early child visits so your pediatrician can perform regular developmental screening.
Although adolescents and adults may experience symptoms of developmental disabilities, symptoms typically need to appear during early childhood for diagnosis under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
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Treatment Options for Developmental Disorders
Although success might be more challenging for young children with developmental disabilities, it is obtainable. Children and infants with developmental disabilities can live healthy, happy lives with early intervention, social support, and educational and behavioral interventions. Some helpful treatment options for neurodevelopmental disorders include:
- Behavioral therapy. Treatment programs for developmental disabilities typically include behavioral interventions, such as counseling, to address the underlying causes of physical, emotional, and social challenges related to developmental problems. While an adolescent psychiatry specialist can help you determine whether your child could benefit from medication, a behavioral therapist can help your child develop new skills, such as social skills and body language skills.
- Speech therapy. For children with communication disorders, working with a speech-language pathologist can help them match the speech development of their peers. Language intervention activities help strengthen a child’s understanding of language, allowing them to practice new words and phrases.
- Occupational therapy. During occupational therapy, your child will work alongside a healthcare professional to develop fine motor skills such as writing with a pencil or tying their shoes. Occupational therapy helps improve strength, balance, and coordination in children with motor problems.
- Regular check-ups. Because every child develops at a different rate, it’s important to schedule regular check-ups with your child’s medical professional to assess their development. If your child shows signs of a developmental delay, visiting a professional as soon as possible can help them work toward typical development.
Finding a Therapist
If your child or loved one has been diagnosed with a developmental disorder—or you suspect one—help is available. To help your child work toward typical development, it’s essential to seek professional care to help your child solidify their foundational skills, improve the coordination of these skills, and achieve functional mastery.
As parents or caregivers, it can be difficult to face the possibility that your child has a developmental problem. However, early identification and intervention are integral to improving your child’s quality of life and providing the best likelihood for success.
To find a therapist, reach out to a mental health provider through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you and your child to a licensed therapist you feel comfortable with. Whether your child is facing social communication challenges, has been diagnosed with autism, or is showing signs of attention deficit disorder, one of our experienced specialists will help them every step of the way.