Understanding Developmental Disabilities

Although developmental disabilities in children are fairly widespread, they remain largely misunderstood or even invisible. This lack of understanding is further complicated by outdated stigmas associated with developmental disabilities.

The reality is that developmental disabilities occur in children of all races, backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups across the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 15% of all children are affected by some type of developmental disability.

Estimates show that more than 5 million Americans of all ages have some type of developmental disability. And though, for the most part, developmental disabilities represent lifelong conditions, with early diagnosis and intervention, most children with developmental disabilities can reach their full potential.

8 Developmental Disabilities in Children

  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Central Auditory Processing Disorder
  • Down Syndrome
  • Phenylketonuria
  • Williams Syndrome

The most important factor for a child with a developmental disability is early detection and intervention. All adults in a child’s life, including parents, other caregivers, teachers, and physicians need to understand the signs of various developmental disabilities. This way, each child with a developmental disability has the best opportunity for treatments, accommodations, and ultimately, success.

While developmental disabilities appear in many different ways in different children, it’s important to understand some of the most prevalent developmental disabilities so that early warning signs are noticed and acted upon.

What Are Child Developmental Disabilities?

Developmental disabilities represent a broad range of conditions that may affect a child’s physical, cognitive, language, or behavioral development. This type of disorder may affect a child’s physical abilities, such as vision, or mental abilities, such as learning. And many developmental disorders affect multiple body parts or systems. These difficulties often are identified before a child reaches the age of 22, and they usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.

In many cases, developmental disorders are genetic and may be present before a baby is born, but some can manifest after birth as a result of injury, infection, or other environmental factors, such as exposure to high levels of environmental toxins. The use of alcohol or other regulated substances during pregnancy is also sometimes correlated with child developmental disabilities.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most commonly seen developmental disabilities in children. Developmental disabilities appear in children in a wide variety of forms, but these disorders are some of the most prevalent.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a commonly diagnosed learning disorder in children that typically manifests as difficulty focusing or paying attention and a tendency to act impulsively. ADHD can have a profound effect on a child’s life, influencing performance at school, peer relationships, and a child’s overall sense of self-esteem.

Any child diagnosed with ADHD should have in place an individualized treatment and learning plan created by a doctor and/or educational specialist. ADHD can be managed in a variety of ways that may include behavioral counseling, medication, special education accommodations, and coping strategies.

Children with ADHD typically to be monitored regularly by their doctors, especially if medication is involved in their treatment plan. While there is no cure for ADHD, it can be effectively managed, and many children with ADHD are highly successful not only in school but also throughout their adult lives.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder represents a group of developmental disorders that typically manifest in difficulties communicating and challenges with social skills. Any of these conditions typically begin during early development stages and continue throughout an individual’s life. ASD affects each child differently, which is why patients typically are diagnosed along a spectrum.

Causes of autism spectrum disorder remain largely unknown. But some medical professionals believe it could be caused by a combination of factors involving both genetics and the environment. Some risk factors associated with autism spectrum disorder include having a family member with ASD, premature birth, low birth weight, and having parents older than 35 or 40. Other genetic conditions also may come into play.

Autism spectrum disorder varies greatly from child to child. Symptoms range from repeated and unusual behaviors, having difficulty holding conversations, being unable to keep eye contact, having trouble responding to their name, and displaying exceptional sensitivity to stimuli.

Treatment for autism spectrum disorder may include communication and behavior therapy, support groups, skills training, and medication to help manage specific symptoms. Many types of behavioral therapies can help patients with ASD better understand social signals and communicate more easily.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, also referred to as manic depression, is a mood disorder marked by a wide variety of moods that fluctuate between manic phases of elation, hyperactivity, and hyper imagination, and a depressive state characterized by inhibition, sluggishness, and anxiety or sadness. These symptoms may manifest from infancy or early childhood, or they may suddenly emerge, usually in adolescence or early adulthood.

Children with bipolar disorder can experience severe and sudden mood changes many times throughout the day. Bipolar disorder represents a chronic, lifelong condition that typically can be well managed with education about the illness, regular sleep and exercise, dietary restrictions and nutritional supplements, close monitoring of symptoms, stress reduction, counseling or psychotherapy for the individual and family, participation in a network of support and, in some cases, medication to effectively manage symptoms.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a disorder that affects motor skills, balance, and posture. It usually is diagnosed within a child’s first few years of life and does not tend to worsen over time. Cerebral palsy manifests in three types: spastic, which causes stiff muscles; athetoid, which causes uncontrolled movements and ataxic, which causes issues with coordination and balance.

Some infants develop cerebral palsy before birth, while others develop it later in infancy. For babies born with cerebral palsy, the condition may be the result of complications during pregnancy– like an infection or a genetic disorder.  For those who develop cerebral palsy after birth, their condition may be the result of brain damage from environmental factors like lead poisoning, head trauma, or bacterial meningitis.

While there currently is no cure for cerebral palsy, working with a team of health care specialists to manage symptoms can greatly improve the quality of life for children with the condition. Common treatments include surgery, occupational therapy, speech therapy, medication to manage symptoms, braces or a wheelchair if needed, and regular physical therapy.

Central Auditory Processing Disorder

This neurological disorder occurs when children with otherwise normal hearing struggle to discriminate among, recognize, or understand sounds. CAPD symptoms are usually specific to the individual child and may range from mild to severe, with many different causes.

Children with CAPD cannot effectively process auditory information passed between the ear and the brain, even though they do not suffer from a physical hearing loss. Children with CAPD may struggle to differentiate distinct sounds from background noise, to remember information they have heard, to discriminate between similar sounds or words, or to maintain listening focus long enough to complete a task. In some cases, CAPD may affect a child’s ability to develop conventional language skills and communicate effectively – both of which can affect learning and academic success.

Specialists like speech-language pathologists and audiologists typically assess CAPD using auditory tests such as behavioral and electrophysiologic tests. Speech-language pathologists and other educational specialists also can provide treatment and coping strategies to help children with CAPD overcome many of the disorder’s challenges. Some children’s auditory processing skills may mature to the point where they are symptom-free, while others may need to manage chronic symptoms throughout their lives.

Down Syndrome

Down syndrome is a condition in which an infant is born with an extra chromosome. While typically, infants are born with 46 chromosomes, babies born with Down syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21. Also known as Trisomy 21, Down syndrome’s extra copy alters the pattern for how the infant’s body and brain develop – this alteration can lead to both mental and physical challenges for the baby.

Down syndrome is the most common chromosomal condition diagnosed in the United States. Each year, approximately 6,000 U.S. infants are born with Down syndrome, meaning that the condition occurs in about 1 of every 700 infants born.

Down syndrome is a condition that will last throughout a child’s lifetime. However, interventional services early in life can help children with Down syndrome improve their physical and intellectual abilities.

Most treatments focus on helping children with Down syndrome develop to their full potential. These services include physical, speech, and occupational therapy, and they are typically accessed through early intervention programs offered at the state level. Children with Down syndrome also may require extra help or attention in school, although many children with Down syndrome are enrolled in regular classes.


Also known as PKU, Phenylketonuria is a genetic metabolic disorder that prevents the body from effectively metabolizing the amino acid phenylalanine – which is prevalent in many common foods. If treatment does not begin within the first few weeks of life, PKU can cause seizures and other neurological problems.

However, outcomes tend to be positive when children are identified and treated early. For this reason, newborns are screened for PKU in every U.S. state and in many other countries across the world. Restricting intake of high-protein foods, along with the use of a specific nutritional substitute can greatly reduce or eliminate the symptoms associated with PKU, and as a result, most children with PKU can expect typical development and a normal life span.

Williams Syndrome

Williams Syndrome is a rare genetic disorder present at birth that is characterized by the deletion of genetic material in chromosome 7. The disorder is characterized by unique facial features often described as “elfin,” elevated blood calcium levels, kidney problems, heart and blood vessel issues, colic, sluggish weight gain, feeding problems, dental issues, hernias, and hypotonia.

Children with Williams Syndrome may exhibit developmental delays, child learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder. Treatment for Williams Syndrome typically includes physical, occupational, and speech therapies. Most children with Williams Syndrome can complete school and secure gainful employment as adults. Many adults with Williams Syndrome live with their parents, in supervised settings or on their own, depending on the severity of the case.

Children With Developmental Disabilities

Recognizing the early signs of a wide array of children’s developmental disabilities positions the adults in their lives to help children get the early intervention, accommodations, and support they need.

While the list here certainly is not exhaustive of all children’s developmental disabilities, it may provide an initial resource to help adults give thoughtful reflection to any warning signs they see, and it can help inform conversations between parents and a child’s doctor and/or other caregivers.

Ultimately, with early intervention and support, most children with developmental disabilities can enjoy a tremendous quality of life and meet their full potential.