Developmental disabilities is an umbrella term that includes several kinds of difficulties with language, learning, physical actions, or behavior. Diagnosed in childhood, one in six U.S. children has a developmental disability. Your child may have several types of developmental disabilities or just one. 

Developmental disabilities can create challenges for both your child and your family throughout life.  Developmental disabilities can be solely physical or have both physical and mental components. Common developmental disabilities include:

  • Blindness
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Deafness
  • Down Syndrome
  • Learning Disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia)
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Autism
  • Speech Impairment
  • Fragile X Syndrome
  • Tourette Syndrome
  • ADHD
  • Spina Bifida
  • Other conditions that negatively impact your child’s development

Developmental disabilities are a result of an abnormal function in the brain that can caused by genetics, disease, or injury. They often require specialized treatment. Some children may need just a little help, while other children may need life-long help and care. 


You may become aware of developmental disabilities as your child fails to achieve certain developmental milestones. Other disabilities like learning disabilities or ADHD may not become apparent until later in childhood. Your doctor can perform tests and help you develop a treatment plan if you notice signs of developmental disabilities in your child. Some common signs include:

  • A failure to reach physical or mental development milestones, like holding up the head, walking, talking, looking at objects, playing, listening, or moving
  • Repetitive movements like rocking, shaking, or twitching
  • A lack of focus on or interaction with their surroundings
  • Problems with reading, math, or language
  • Difficulty interacting with others 
  • An inability to focus on tasks 
  • Violent acting out like hitting, biting, scratching, or kicking without provocation
  • Losing or regressing a previously acquired skill
  • Sensory issues including sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch
  • Not being able to form bonds or communicate effectively with others
  • Problems learning basic skills like walking or eating unassisted 
  • Fear of talking, interacting, or even being outside of the home


For some developmental disabilities, a specific cause can be pinpointed. Developmental disabilities like spina bifida, Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and others are caused by distinct genetic abnormalities. The causes of other developmental disabilities are harder to pinpoint. Some common risk factors include:

  • Having one or more blood relatives with a developmental disability
  • Maternal infections during pregnancy: at least 25% of hearing loss in babies is a result of prenatal infection
  • Drinking or drug use during pregnancy, leading to conditions like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome 
  • Physical trauma at or just after birth, premature birth, or a low birth weight
  • Untreated jaundice in newborns
  • Untreated hypothyroidism in newborns
  • Exposure in the womb or in early childhood to environmental toxins such as lead
  • Early childhood infections
  • Genetic abnormalities 


Children with developmental disabilities can benefit from a treatment program designed to address their special needs. You and your doctor should discuss medications, treatments, and therapies that can benefit your child.

Medication: While medication cannot cure developmental disabilities, it can help control the symptoms of many conditions. Talk to a doctor about what medications may benefit your child.

Therapy: Occupational therapy, physical therapy, talk therapy, behavioral therapy - all of these techniques and others can be used to help you and your child. Learn more about the care options available at Sheppard Pratt.

Education: You know your child best. Learning more about their developmental disabilities and potential treatment options can help you feel in control as you work with your child’s care team. Read more about developmental disabilities and learn more about developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your child.  

Support: You and your child will benefit from extra support as you learn to live with the impact of developmental disabilities. Sheppard Pratt has support groups that can help.