Life’s Early Milestones: Diagnosing and Treating Developmental Disabilities

March is developmental disability awareness month, a time spent focusing on accessibility issues and fighting for greater inclusion for those with disabilities. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 17% of children in the United States between the ages of 3 and 17 have a developmental disability. That’s every one in six children. And yet, developmental disabilities are often misunderstood by the public. 

What are Developmental Disabilities?

Developmental disabilities is an umbrella term for lifelong conditions that begin during a child’s developmental period and might impair physical, learning, language or behavioral abilities. There are many different types of developmental disabilities, all of which can vary in the level of severity. Some of the most common include:

  • • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • • Autism spectrum disorder
  • • Learning disorders, including dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia 
  • • Intellectual disabilities 
  • • Language and speech disabilities
  • • Muscle dystrophy
  • • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum disorders
  • • Cerebral Palsy
  • • Hearing loss
  • • Vision impairment
  • • Tourette Syndrome
  • • Kernicterus 

Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention

Just as there are many different types of developmental disabilities, there are just as many causes. Certain disabilities, like ADHD and ASD, are thought to be caused at least in part by genetics. Parental health during pregnancy can also play a role. Smoking and drinking can cause certain disabilities, such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Infections during pregnancy, being born premature and complications during birth are also associated with a greater risk for developing a range of developmental disabilities, including hearing loss and Down’s Syndrome.

However, not all children who have developmental disabilities are born with them. Brain damage can cause disabilities, including cerebral palsy and certain intellectual disabilities, and often occurs due to exposure to environmental toxins like lead, or infections and injuries.

While it is impossible to prevent some developmental disabilities, protective measures can be taken to reduce their likelihood. Ensuring children wear a bike helmet and seat belt, for example, reduces the likelihood of a brain injury. Making sure children receive their proper immunizations reduces the likelihood of infections. And abstaining from alcohol, smoking and drugs while pregnant can prevent some developmental disabilities that develop during pregnancy.

What to do Pre-Diagnosis

Regardless of whether or not you believe your child has a developmental disability, keeping track of their developmental milestones is critical to ensuring their physician is able to properly care for them. 

Developmental milestones are events that occur around a standard age in a child’s life—for example, babies usually begin to smile at people around two months, begin to walk at around one year and can talk in short sentences at around two years. While each child grows and learns at a different pace, children usually reach these milestones within the same general age range. 

If a child does not reach those milestones within the usual age range, that does not necessarily mean there is cause for concern. However, it is important to let their doctor know so they can be screened for any developmental disabilities. 

Pediatricians regularly conduct developmental and behavioral screening during a child’s early years, so scheduling regular wellness visits is important to ensuring a developmental disability is caught early.


Although diagnosing a developmental disability can be tricky, early diagnosis is important to ensure your child receives proper support. Although not all disabilities have treatments, treatment of symptoms can go a long way. For example, physical, speech and occupational therapy can ease symptoms for conditions like cerebral palsy and some intellectual disabilities. Diagnosis also ensures your child is able to access any resources they need, like extra support in school.

Early intervention—a combination of therapies and other supportive services—can play an important role in ensuring a child is successful in school and beyond. Because the connections in the brain, called neural circuits, are the most malleable before the age of 3, therapies tend to make the most difference when the child is younger. 

Medications can also be helpful in treating symptoms. For example, muscle relaxants can ease stiff muscles for people with cerebral palsy, and certain prescriptions can improve the attention span of a child with ADHD.

No matter the disability, diagnosis is the first step to getting help. If you are unsure if your child is meeting their milestones, follow the CDC milestone tracker, and contact their doctor. 

Visit Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities for more information, at 

Written by: Sarah Harder

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