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What are the Five Major Developmental Disabilities?

7 min.

This Developmental Disabilities Month, we explore the most common types of developmental disabilities.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

March 19, 2023


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Table of Contents

What are developmental disabilities? 

Developmental disabilities, also known as developmental disorders, are a set of conditions that occur in early childhood and affect a person’s mental and physical growth. These disabilities can affect an individual’s ability to learn, communicate, and perform daily tasks. Understanding developmental disabilities is crucial to provide support and accommodations for individuals with these conditions.

What are the 5 most common developmental disabilities?

1. Autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects an individual’s ability to communicate, socialize, and interact with others. It is diagnosed when an individual exhibits persistent deficits in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

Common characteristics of autism spectrum disorder include difficulties with social communication, such as eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions. Individuals with ASD may have a limited range of interests and activities and engage in repetitive behaviors, such as hand-flapping or lining up toys. They may also have difficulty with sensory processing and experience heightened sensitivity to certain sounds, textures, or smells.

ASD is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects individuals to varying degrees. Some individuals with ASD may have relatively mild symptoms and require minimal support, while others may require significant support and accommodations. ASD is linked to neurodivergence, and while there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting neurodivergent people, seeking neurodivergence-informed or affirming therapy can be one way for people with ASD to receive support. 

2. Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect an individual’s movement and coordination. It is caused by damage to the brain before, during, or after birth and is characterized by muscle weakness, spasticity, and difficulties with balance and coordination.

Common causes of cerebral palsy include brain damage or injury before or during birth, such as oxygen deprivation or infection. Premature birth and low birth weight are also risk factors for cerebral palsy.

Individuals with cerebral palsy may have difficulties with movement and coordination, including walking, sitting, and standing. They may also experience muscle stiffness or spasticity, which can affect their ability to perform daily tasks.

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3. Down syndrome

Down syndrome is a genetic condition that occurs when an individual has an extra copy of chromosome 21. It is characterized by cognitive delays, physical characteristics, and an increased risk of certain medical conditions.

Common risk factors for Down syndrome include advanced maternal age and a family history of the condition. Individuals with Down syndrome may have cognitive delays and difficulties with communication, social interaction, and daily living skills. They may also have physical characteristics, such as almond-shaped eyes, a small head, and a flattened facial profile.

4. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are a group of conditions that occur when an individual is exposed to alcohol in the womb. It is characterized by cognitive and behavioral problems, as well as physical abnormalities. There are several types of FASD, including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS), Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND), and Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD). 

The most significant risk factor for FASD is a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Individuals with FASD may have cognitive delays, difficulties with communication and social interaction, and behavioral problems such as impulsivity and hyperactivity. They may also have physical characteristics such as a small head, low birth weight, and facial abnormalities.

5. Intellectual disabilities

Individuals with intellectual disabilities typically experience significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior, which can affect their ability to learn, communicate, and perform daily activities. The condition specifically impacts cognitive abilities and is typically characterized by its onset during childhood.

What’s the difference between developmental and intellectual disabilities?

Developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities are two distinct but often overlapping categories of conditions that can affect individuals throughout their lives.

Developmental disabilities refer to a group of conditions that are usually present at birth or emerge during early childhood and can impact a child’s physical, cognitive, or behavioral abilities. The main types of developmental disabilities include autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

On the other hand, intellectual disabilities specifically affect an individual’s intellectual or cognitive abilities and are usually characterized by significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. These limitations can affect an individual’s ability to learn, communicate, and perform daily activities, and typically become apparent during childhood.

It’s important to note that not everyone with a developmental disability will have an intellectual disability, and not all individuals with an intellectual disability will have a developmental disability. However, there can be significant overlap between the two categories, as many developmental disabilities can impact cognitive functioning and vice versa.

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What are some risk factors for developmental disabilities?

There are many risk factors that can contribute to the emergence of developmental disorders. Some of the most common risk factors include:

Genetic and chromosomal disorders

Certain genetic and chromosomal disorders, such as Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome, can increase the risk of developmental disabilities.

Premature birth and low birth weight

Babies who are born prematurely or with a low birth weight are at a higher risk for developmental disabilities.

Prenatal exposure to toxins

Exposure to toxins during pregnancy, such as alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, can increase the risk of developmental disabilities.

Maternal infections during pregnancy

Certain infections, such as rubella, cytomegalovirus, and toxoplasmosis, can increase the risk of developmental disabilities in babies.

Brain injury or trauma

Traumatic brain injury, infections, and other injuries to the brain can increase the risk of developmental disabilities.

Lack of access to healthcare and early intervention services

Children who do not receive timely healthcare and early intervention services are at a higher risk of developing developmental disabilities.

Poverty and social disadvantage

Children from low-income families and disadvantaged backgrounds are at a higher risk of developmental disabilities due to lack of resources, exposure to toxins, and other environmental factors.

Having one or more risk factors does not necessarily mean that an individual will develop a developmental disorder. Many factors can influence a person’s development, and supportive environments and interventions can often help individuals with developmental disabilities reach their full potential.

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How are developmental disabilities tied to mental health?

Developmental disabilities can be tied to mental health in several ways. Individuals with developmental disabilities are more likely to experience mental health challenges including anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders. These challenges can be related to their disability or to the challenges they face in daily life, such as social isolation, communication difficulties, and difficulty accessing services.

The link between developmental disabilities and mental health can also be bidirectional, meaning that mental health challenges can contribute to the development or exacerbation of developmental disorders. For example, children who experience significant emotional trauma or neglect may be at higher risk for developmental delays and behavioral challenges.

Furthermore, individuals with developmental disorders often face significant barriers to accessing mental disorder services and support. This can include a lack of trained providers who are equipped to work with individuals with disabilities, financial barriers to accessing care, and communication challenges that make it difficult to express their needs and experiences.

It is important to recognize and address the mental health needs of individuals with developmental disabilities. This can involve providing targeted interventions and support, addressing the social determinants of health that can impact mental health outcomes, and ensuring that individuals with disabilities have access to inclusive and culturally responsive mental health services.

Understanding developmental disabilities

Understanding developmental disabilities is crucial to providing support and accommodations for individuals with these conditions. Intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are just a few examples of the many developmental disabilities that affect individuals.

Each condition has its own set of challenges and characteristics, and it is essential to approach each individual with a personalized and supportive approach. Providing access to education, therapy, and resources can help individuals with developmental disabilities reach their full potential.

It is also important to promote awareness and acceptance of individuals with developmental disorders and to advocate for their rights and inclusion in society. By working together, we can create a more inclusive and supportive world for individuals with developmental disabilities.

Seeking mental health support from Charlie Health

Our mental health providers have extensive experience working with teens and young adults from all walks of life. Charlie Health’s therapists practice neurodivergence-informed therapy and celebrate the unique differences that make you, you. At Charlie Health, every client is matched with a therapist who fits their specific needs, and will also be matched with a group of peers who are from similar backgrounds with similar struggles. You are not alone with your mental health challenges. If you or your child are struggling, get help now.

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