Definition and Overview

A term used to refer to a group of psychiatric conditions that begin in early life, developmental disorders can affect an individual in different areas, such as learning, language, and motor skills. Autism spectrum disorders are also included in the narrower definitions, such as found in the tenth edition of the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). However, this official definition released by the ICD and the World Health Organization excludes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (also known as ADHD). Other broader definitions also include schizophrenia and antisocial behaviour as developmental disorders, since they can begin in childhood and be exacerbated throughout the individual’s life.

One of the most important characteristics of developmental disorders is their presence in the early life of the individual. With proper treatment and management, the child can outgrow the conditions and their symptoms. However, developmental disorders can impair crucial skills, which can still manifest as the child progresses to adult life.

Research shows that more males are affected by developmental disorders than female children, which points to a genetic component to how individuals are afflicted by such conditions.

Most developmental disorders are diagnosed when the child reaches school age; when parents or teachers notice that the child is lagging behind his or her peers. A majority of developmental disorders are diagnosed in patients under nine years old. Some parents suspect developmental disorders in their young children who fail to speak at the proper age, or have very limited vocabulary compared to other children of the same age.

Developmental disorders are usually first noticed if the child exhibits symptoms of communication disorders. Such children have a difficult time understanding simple sentences and directions, or fail to name simple objects. While they might be able to speak when they reach school age, children with communication disorders continue to exhibit symptoms, such as difficulty in comprehension and expression. As these children grow older, they exhibit difficulty in comprehending and expressing more abstract ideas. Again, these symptoms are quite noticeable in school, where various aspects of learning disorders hinder the individual from progressing in certain areas.

There are different types of developmental disorders, including the following:

  • Communication disorders. As mentioned earlier, this type of developmental disorder is the most noticeable. Essentially, communication disorders affect an individual’s ability and capacity to communicate. Communication is an important aspect of making sense of the world, and children with this type of disorder can experience delays and impairments in other aspects of their lives. Communication disorders include mixed receptive-expressive language disorder, expressive language disorder, phonological disorder, and stuttering.

  • Learning disorders and disabilities. This group of developmental disorders can greatly affect the individual’s learning abilities and academic functions and are diagnosed by a professional. The most common are dyslexia (problems with reading), dyscalculia (problem with mathematics) and dysgraphia (problems with writing). Typically, people suffering from such conditions experience difficulty in performing certain types of tasks if left alone or instructed using conventional teaching methods.

  • Autism spectrum disorders. A type of neurodevelopmental disorder, people suffering from autism spectrum disorders can exhibit difficulties in interacting with others, expressing or comprehending verbal and non-verbal communication, and might have noticeably restrictive or repetitive behaviours. This kind of developmental disorder is usually observed within the first two years of a patient’s life.

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Also known as ADHD, this condition affects the patient’s executive functions, such as control over attention and inhibitions. ADHD is usually not included in the narrower definition of developmental disorders, but can severely limit the child's development.

Cause of Condition

Research into developmental disorders has resulted in a variety of theories as to its cause. Some theories propose that the environment where the child has been raised play a crucial role. There are also theories that propose the abnormalities in the brain or its biochemistry are pre-determined by genetics.

In human beings, development is influenced by both the individual’s genetic makeup and the environment he or she moves in. This is confirmed by some theories in developmental disorders that say both genetics and environment contribute to the normal or abnormal development of the child.

There are also researchers who believe that significant stress and trauma experienced by the individual during early childhood are contributing factors as they can cause impairment in various faculties of the child. Meanwhile, other theories propose that even minor stressful situations can result in impairment in one’s emotional, social, and behavioural development.

Key Symptoms

There are various symptoms associated with developmental disorders depending on the affected faculty of the individual. For example, individuals with autism spectrum disorders have impaired communication and social skills. Meanwhile, patients with learning disabilities and disorders have noticeable impairment in academic functions, such as reading and writing or understanding and solving math problems.

The symptoms of ADHD, on the other hand, are hyperactivity, inability to focus, impulsiveness, and poor interpersonal relationships.

Who to See and Types of Treatment Available

Parents of children who are believed to be suffering from developmental disorders or exhibiting symptoms listed above, should take their child to a child psychiatrist or paediatrician. These medical professionals specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and management of developmental disorders that affect children. After making a diagnosis, they can decide on the best treatment or management methods to help children cope up with symptoms and become functional as much as possible.

Management techniques can involve changes in the curriculum or instruction, with special attention to specialized teaching methods that will help them learn at their own pace. The child might be recommended to enrol in a special school where the teachers and administrators are specially trained to prepare lessons and manage the classroom in a way that is beneficial to a child with learning difficulties.


  • Simms MD, Schum RL. Language development and communication disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 32.
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