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Developmental Disabilities - An Overview

It's natural to compare your child with others his age. When the neighbor's baby walks at 10 months, for example, you may worry if yours does not crawl until 13 months. And if your toddler is using words at an earlier age than his playmates, probably you'll be very proud. Usually, however, such differences are not significant. Each child has his own unique rate of development, so some learn certain skills faster than others.

Only when a baby or preschooler lags far behind, fails altogether to reach the developmental milestones, or loses a previously acquired skill is there reason to suspect a mental or physical problem serious enough to be considered a developmental disability. Disabilities that can be identified during childhood include mental retardation, language and learning disorders, cerebral palsy, autism and sensory impairments, such as vision and hearing loss. (Some pediatricians include seizure disorders in this category, but a large percentage of children who have seizures develop normally.)

Each of these disabilities can vary greatly in severity. For example, one child with mild cerebral palsy may have no obvious handicap other than a slight lack of coordination, while another with a severe form may be unable to walk or feed himself. Also, some children have more than one disability, each requiring different care.

Evaluating Developmental Disabilities
If your child does not seem to be developing normally, he should have a complete medical and developmental evaluation, perhaps including a consultation with a developmental pediatrician who is a specialist in this field. This will give your pediatrician the information needed to determine whether a true disability exists and, if so, how it should be managed. Depending on the results of the evaluation, the doctor may recommend physical, speech, and language or occupational therapy. Educational intervention or psychological counseling also might be necessary. A child development center affiliated with a medical school should be able to help you arrange these consultations. In some states and cities, these evaluations are offered free of charge, or are partially paid for by local government. Your local board of education can tell you if this is the case in your area.

Today, every child over the age of 3 years who has a developmental disability is entitled by federal law to special education in a preschool or school program. Most states also offer special programs for infants and toddlers who have developmental delays or disabilities or who are at risk for these difficulties.

Family Support and Education
The families of children with disabilities also need special support and education. It's not so easy to accept the fact that a child has a developmental problem. To understand what the child is facing and how he can be helped to realize his full potential, each member of the family should be educated about the specific problem and counseled about how to deal with it.

Excerpted from Caring for Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam 1999

(c) Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics


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