What Are the Common Developmental Disabilities in Children?

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Many professionals describe developmental disabilities as physical, emotional, or intellectual disorders that start before birth or in early childhood. However, it's a tricky definition because the terms developmental disability, neurodevelopmental disability, developmental delay, and learning disability are very close in meaning and often overlap.

Children with developmental delays are often born with them. "Issues may emerge later in life with similar outcomes, but they are called acquired disabilities," explains Rebecca Mannis, PhD, a learning specialist and consultant at Ivy Prep Learning Center.

When interacting with a practitioner who is assessing your child's challenges, it's important to remember that different practitioners may use different terms to describe the same thing. While developmental disabilities are often lifelong, early diagnosis and treatment can make a tremendous difference in a child's life. Even when challenges persist, practitioners can provide tools and suggest accommodations.

Some of the issues most commonly labeled as developmental disabilities include intellectual disabilities (low IQ), autism, and cerebral palsy. We turned to the experts to learn more about each.

Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disabilities (ID) relate to a person’s ability to learn and perform tasks of daily living at an expected level. In other words, a person with an intellectual disability has unusually low intelligence as measured by IQ tests, behavioral observations, and other diagnostic tools. A person is generally considered to have an intellectual disability if their IQ score is 70 or under; the average IQ in the U.S. is around 100.

"When we think about most developmental disabilities, such as dyslexia and ADHD, we’re thinking about a person with average or above average intelligence," Dr. Mannis explains. "There is some underlying issue, however, that makes learning and focus more difficult. Those issues impact their cognitive functioning and academics."

However, when a person has an intellectual disability, their overall skills might be greatly reduced. "It’s very important to work with [professionals] who are aware of appropriate interventions and programs. [They should also be able to] help the family emotionally because there are long-term issues to consider," Dr. Mannis adds.

Intellectual disabilities can exist on their own, but they may also be part of a wider diagnosis. For example, people with autism may or may not also have intellectual disabilities. It can also be difficult to properly test IQ in a person who is nonverbal, or who has limited ability to write or speak.

Recognizing Intellectual Disabilities

People with intellectual disabilities generally learn more slowly than their peers. It may take them longer to learn to read, write, dress, and even feed themselves.

People with a mild intellectual disability may learn to do all these things and more over time, and with appropriate support. Those with more severe intellectual disabilities may not be able to learn academically or complete many tasks of daily living. Young children with intellectual disabilities generally have trouble with verbal communication, social rules, physical skills like crawling or walking, and skills of daily living like feeding or dressing.

It's important to note that not all children who are slow learners are intellectually disabled. In some cases, other issues such as deafness, Apraxia of Speech, or autism can look very much like an intellectual disability. Only a qualified team of evaluators can provide a definitive diagnosis, so if you have concerns about your child, please reach out to their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

Causes and Treatment for Intellectual Disabilities

There are many causes of intellectual disability, ranging from genetic issues like Down syndrome to traumatic brain injury. Some autistic people are intellectually disabled, while many are not. It's also important to note that intellectual disability may not impact other abilities; many people with intellectual disabilities are also talented singers, artists, and athletes.

In most cases, there is no direct treatment for intellectual disability, in part because it's often a subset of a larger syndrome or the result of permanent injury. It is, however, possible to support children with intellectual disabilities by providing a range of therapies and appropriate educational settings. It's also important to encourage their special interests, talents, and skills that may not be impacted by an intellectual disability.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a relatively common disorder that makes it harder to move and balance. People with CP may have stiff muscles (spasticity), uncontrollable movements (dyskinesia), and/or poor balance and coordination (ataxia). They may also have a combination of these issues.

Some people with CP have issues on one side of the body, but not on the other. As with other developmental disabilities, CP can be mild or severe.

Recognizing Cerebral Palsy

It can be hard to recognize milder forms of CP because the signs can be quite subtle. The below symptoms are some signs to watch out for:

  • A baby who feels stiff or floppy in your arms
  • Difficulty learning to roll or bringing their hands to their mouths
  • Being able to reach and grasp with one hand but not the other
  • Staying still or seeming awkward in their movements
  • Scooting or bouncing but not crawling

If your baby displays any of these signs, or if you have concerns, be sure to reach out to your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider.

Causes and Treatment for Cerebral Palsy

CP results from abnormal brain development which can occur before, during, or after birth. CP can be a genetic condition or can occur as a result of oxygen deprivation during the birthing process. It can also occur as a result of an illness such as meningitis, or as an outcome of a stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Treatment for CP may involve physical, speech, and occupational therapy. It may also include the use of medical devices to support movement and balance. Treatment, of course, depends on the severity and type of disorder.

Autism

Autism, sometimes called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a lifelong disability that starts before age three. People with autism are very different from one another and might experience a range of challenges with social communication, sensory dysfunction, and certain tasks of daily living.

In some cases, autism can make it difficult to make friends, manage structured settings like classrooms, and cope with the loud noises and bright lights of the world. Some autistic people are very bright, verbal, and academically capable, while others are intellectually disabled and may never learn to use communicative speech.

Recognizing Autism

Autism can be mistaken for other disorders, especially when symptoms are relatively mild. Delayed speech, for example, can occur as a result of many different issues, including hearing loss. Below are some of the most common symptoms of autism to watch for:

  • Consistently avoiding eye contact
  • Seeming to ignore or simply being unaware of other people around them
  • Exhibiting unusual movement patterns such as finger flicking, rocking, pacing, etc.
  • Having delayed or unusual speech or vocal patterns (or no spoken language at all)
  • Unusually sensitive or insensitive to noise, light, or pain
  • Not engaging in symbolic (pretend) play or social play

If your child shows some or all of these symptoms, or if you have concerns, speak with their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

Causes and Treatments for Autism

In most cases, the cause of autism is idiopathic, or unknown. In other cases, autism is caused by genetic differences that may or may not be inherited. Autism may also be caused by some environmental factors, including specific prenatal exposures. It's important to know that autism is not caused by vaccines.

There is a wide range of treatments for autism, which include behavioral and developmental therapies and medications. In many cases, early intensive therapy can make a positive difference for children with autism. It is important to note that autism is a lifelong disorder. Even people with very mild symptoms may struggle when faced with complex social demands or sensory overwhelm.

A Word From Verywell

About one in six children in the U.S. has a developmental disability. If your child is among them, they are not alone. Societal understanding of developmental disabilities has improved radically over the last few decades, and, as a result, there are more resources available than ever before.

While it can be tempting to hope that your child will grow out of a set of symptoms, the reality is that an early diagnosis can unlock a wide range of opportunities. The earlier you're able to recognize and address developmental disabilities, the better the likely outcomes are for both your child and your whole family. If you have concerns about symptoms, please be sure to reach out to your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider.

11 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. About intellectual and developmental disabilities (idds).

  2. American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Defining Criteria for Intellectual Disability.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about intellectual disability.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Intellectual Disability.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Intellectual Disability.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is cerebral palsy?

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is cerebral palsy?

  8. National Institute of Mental Health. Autism spectrum disorder.

  9. National Institute of Mental Health. Autism spectrum disorder.

  10. Kumin L, Schoenbrodt L. Employment in Adults with Down Syndrome in the United States: Results from a National Survey. J Appl Res Intellect Disabil. 2016;29(4):330-45. doi:10.1111/jar.12182


  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Developmental Disabilities.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.

Originally written by
Ann Logsdon

Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.

Learn about our editorial process