Developmental disorders are a diverse group of long-term conditions that begin to affect people in early childhood. These conditions affect a child’s ability to participate in personal, social and academic areas of life. Children may have difficulties with learning, communication, mobility or behavior, for example. The features of each developmental disorder are different, but most are characterized by a delay in reaching expected developmental milestones.
The types of problems that children experience as a result of developmental disorders vary. Some children have very specific learning difficulties. Others might have broader difficulties with social skills or intelligence. It’s common for children to experience more than one developmental disorder, or to also experience mental health challenges.
The factors underlying developmental disorders are complex. It is generally thought that interactions between biological and environmental factors affect the likelihood of developing a disorder.
Developmental disorders often require attention throughout a person’s lifetime. If you have concerns about your child, seek assessment and diagnosis as early as possible. Supports can then be put in place and the appropriate treatment can start. This can make a huge difference in helping people to lead fulfilled and rewarding lives.
Prevalence of developmental disorders
Developmental disorders appear to be quite common.
Data from the National Health Interview Survey (1) suggests that:
- 1 in 6 children in the United States experienced a developmental disorder of some kind.
- Developmental disorders appeared to be identified more frequently in boys than in girls.
- Rates appear to be increasing, although it is difficult to tell why this may be the case.
In addition, children with developmental disorders are more likely than others to face mental health challenges (2).
Types of developmental disorders
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) is what mental health professionals use for diagnosing neuro-developmental disorders. It is a broad category including a number of different diagnoses:
- Intellectual Disabilities
- Communication Disorders
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Specified Learning Disorder
- Motor Disorders
Symptoms of developmental disorders
Symptoms of developmental disorders vary from person to person and the specific diagnosis.
However, the identification of a developmental disorder often occurs when a parent notices that their child does not seem to be reaching developmental milestones. Children progressively develop skills related to how they:
Each developmental milestone tends to be reached by the time a child is a particular age. However, there is not necessarily cause for alarm if your child has not reached a particular milestone by the guideline age. All children develop at different rates. You can learn more about developmental milestones here.
Assessment of developmental disorders
Some developmental disorders can be detected early, through screening during pregnancy. Others may become evident later when children start school. Parents with concerns about their child can talk to their physician, who can help to organize an assessment.
The assessment and diagnosis of developmental disorders are quite specialized. The process often involves a team of professionals, which may include a combination of the following:
Treatment for developmental disorders
Treatment plans for developmental disorders often involve a combination of medical support, skills training, therapy and other supports. It’s important to work closely with your health care professional to figure out the treatment approach that’s the right fit for you and your family. With the right treatment and supports in place, people with developmental disorders can go on to lead very fulfilling lives. Common elements of a treatment plan include:
Medication and medical support
Medication may help to manage symptoms, in some cases. Medications may be prescribed by a specialized doctor to help with:
- Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
- Low mood, irritability, or anger
- Aggressive behavior
- Attention difficulties
In addition, children require ongoing medical checkups and assessment. This helps to monitor progress and enables additional treatment if required.
Therapy can be an important part of a treatment plan for the child or adult with the developmental disorder, as well as for the parents and family of the child. Therapy types to consider and tips for choosing a therapist is discussed in more detail below.
Parent skills training
Parent skills training can help parents to understand their child’s needs and learn how to best support their child. Examples include:
- ADHD Training and Support for Parents, offered by Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
- Center for Parent Information and Resources can help you to locate your closest Parent Training and Information Center.
- Specific training courses such as the Incredible Years Parent Training Program.
Families of children or adults with developmental disabilities may find support groups to be beneficial. The Arc offers programs and support for people with developmental disabilities all around the United States. You can find supports in your local area here.
You might consider a support group specializing in a particular developmental disorder. For example, if you or your child struggle with ADHD, look for local supports through CHADD.
If you need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255, or go the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. Some helplines specialize in specific developmental disorders, such as the ADHD Information line at 1-800-233-4050.
Therapy types to consider for developmental disorders
Therapy for the person with a developmental disorder is usually highly structured. It aims to help people to cope better and function at their best. People with developmental disorders are at increased risk of experiencing mental health challenges such as anxiety or depression, which therapy can also help with.
Family counseling can provide emotional support and help parents or caregivers learn how to best support their child. Parents of children with developmental disorders may also benefit from individual therapy. These parents tend to experience more stress than other parents.
Therapy types to consider include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. CBT can help people experiencing mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.
- Family therapy: This helps in many ways, such as providing a forum for family members to understand and learn to support the person with the developmental disorder. You can learn more about Family Systems Therapy here.
- Creative Arts Therapies: Music, Dance or Art Therapy, for example, can be particularly helpful for children with developmental disorders, for finding new ways of expressing themselves nonverbally.
- Skills training: Any type of therapy including a skills training component can help people to develop new social skills, coping skills, and skills for participating in work or school, as well as for managing their illness.
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): ABA is an evidence-based type of therapy commonly used for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ABA helps build positive behaviors and discourage unhelpful behaviors. It provides skills training to aid communication, social interactions and engaging at school.
- Mindfulness Practices: Learning mindfulness practices can help to reduce stress levels in parents of children with developmental disorders.
- Client-centered therapy: Client-Centered Therapy has a couple of adaptations that are helpful for people with developmental disabilities, such as Person-Centered or Child-Centered Play Therapy.
What to look for in a therapist for developmental disorders
When selecting a mental health professional, it can be helpful to consider the following factors:
One of the most important things to consider is the potential for developing a strong working relationship with your therapist. This relationship is called the therapeutic alliance, and it’s the number one indicator of treatment efficacy. Finding the right therapist can be particularly challenging yet important for people who experience social or communication difficulties. Consider asking for help from trusted family members, friends, or your doctor.
Qualifications and experience
Look for a licensed mental health professional with experience and training in developmental disorders. For example, there is a specialized division of psychologists in the American Psychological Association who have a particular interest in developmental disorders.
The best fitting therapist will also depend on the specific developmental disorder. For example, a therapist with training in ABA would be a good match for the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Take a look at your prospective therapist’s biography. This is often where they note their specializations so it’s easy for you to identify.
Talk in advance
The best way to judge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. You can do this with our vetted Zencare therapists. Most therapists will be happy to oblige. This gives you the opportunity to ask about:
- Their qualifications
- Their experience working with people who have developmental disorders
- Any ongoing training they are participating in that relates to developmental disorders
- What type of therapy they suggest, and what that will be like
- Whether they will liaise and collaborate with your other treatment providers
- Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy
Try to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
Sources and references:
1:Boyle, C.A., et. al., 2011, "Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in US Children, 1997–2008”