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Developmental Disabilities

Developmental Disabilities: An Overview

What parents should know

Children develop in many ways. In addition to physical growth, over time, children experience growth in their thinking and reasoning abilities and develop more awareness of their feelings. Each child is different, but there are ‘milestones’ or abilities that we expect most children to develop by certain ages. Minor variations are common, but over a time, a child’s development should progress normally for his age. As a parent, it is important that you observe and interact with your child throughout his childhood to be sure that he is developing these age-appropriate skills and behaviors. Seeing your child grow and develop these new abilities is one of the great pleasures of being a parent!

What parents can do

Defining developmental disabilities. Developmental disabilities are a category for different disorders of development that result in mental and/or physical impairments during childhood. People will developmental disabilities have problems such as walking, learning and speaking, or taking care of themselves. Some of the most common developmental disabilities include mental retardation, hearing or vision loss, cerebral palsy, and autism spectrum disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 17% of children have one of these serious developmental disabilities. Not every developmental problem is as serious as these disabilities. In fact, milder developmental problems, like learning disabilities, occur more often than severe disabilities. For find out more about learning disabilities, see One Tough Job’s fact sheet on Learning Disabilities. For descriptions of developmental disabilities, visit the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

Raising your concerns early. While only a professional with experience can evaluating disabilities can determine if there is a problem and how severe it is, when a parents has a concern about her child’s development, this often predicts that there is some problem that needs professional attention. Therefore, if you have a concern about your child, be sure to tell her doctor right away. Don’t be afraid to raise the issue more than once if you remain concerned. Early identification leads to prompt intervention, which leads to the best outcomes for your child. Not all children who experience delays in development have a serious disability, and some children do ‘grow out of it’ and catch up to their peers. However, it is important to recognize early on if your child is having trouble achieving developmental milestones or basic skills and to take your concerns to a professional.

Identifying developmental disabilities. Developmental milestones are abilities (such as crawling, grasping, or babbling) that children are expected to be able to do at certain ages. A developmental delay may exist if a child does not reach a certain milestone at the expected age. At every well-child visit, your child’s doctor should review what developmental milestones your child has achieved. In addition, even if there are no reasons for concern about his development, your child should receive a developmental screening test at 9 months, 18 months, and 24-30 months as part of his routine health care. A developmental screening involves the doctor asking you questions about your child and talking or playing with him. The screening will determine whether your child needs to see a specialist for more detailed evaluation. For more information on child development visit the CDC’s Learn the Signs. Act Early. Campaign site.

Obtaining a developmental screening. If you are concerned about your child’s development, an additional screening may be necessary. There are several ways you can get a developmental assessment. Discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor, who can advise you about what to do next. The doctor may refer you to a developmental pediatrician, pediatric neurologist, child psychologist or psychiatrist, or other child development specialist. Or, if you child is under 3 years of age, you can contact your local early intervention agency, and if your child is 3 years and older, you can contact your public school system. To find the appropriate person to speak to in your area, visit the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

For more information on Autism Spectrum Disorders, see One Tough Job’s fact sheet on Autism.

This article has been reviewed by Dr. Betsy Busch, MD

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