Developmental Disorders Defined
Developmental Disorders Defined
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Developmental disorders affect about 15% of children in the United States, causing difficulties with personal, social, academic, and/or occupational skills. Despite struggling in these areas, children with disabilities can be successful in both their secondary and postsecondary education with the right form(s) of support. In fact, 9–15% of college students report having a disability. Resources are available to help students with developmental disorders succeed in college if they are willing to disclose their disability to their school.


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What is a developmental disorder?

Developmental disorders (also sometimes called developmental disabilities or developmental delays) typically appear in early childhood and cause an individual to have difficulty taking care of themselves, interacting with others, succeeding in school, or performing their job. About one in six children between the ages of 3 and 17 have a developmental disorder. Data on the number of adults diagnosed with developmental disorders is more difficult to find, but results from the 2016 American Community Survey indicate that over 5% of Americans have a cognitive disability.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) defines the following conditions as neurodevelopmental disorders: intellectual disability, communication disorders, autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, specific learning disorder, and tic disorder. These disorders have a wide range of symptoms, but what they all have in common is their effect on a person’s functioning in day-to-day life.

What areas of functioning do developmental disorders affect?

Typically, these disorders have an impact on personal, social, academic, and/or occupational functioning.

  • Personal functioning involves caring for oneself: eating, bathing, getting dressed, etc.
  • Social functioning involves interactions with others: describing one’s wants and needs, having a conversation, answering questions, etc.
  • Academic functioning involves education: paying attention in class, writing papers, performing research, taking tests, etc.
  • Occupational functioning involves performing a job: arriving on time, maintaining consistent job performance, interacting appropriately with coworkers, etc.

The areas of functioning that are affected depend largely on the individual, but also somewhat on the disorder. For example, autism spectrum disorder primarily affects an individual’s personal and social functioning skills, while attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often affects academic and/or occupational skills.

However, it is rarely that simple. The rates of comorbidity, or having a combination of disorders, are very high. Of individuals diagnosed with ADHD, 60-80% have been diagnosed with another disorder as well. Because of this overlap, it is very common for an individual to exhibit skill deficits in most, or even all, of the areas of functioning. The amount of skill deficit, or how much one struggles with each skill area, depends on the severity of the disorder. Those with the most severe cases tend to struggle across all of the areas of functioning, and also have fewer skills in each area.

How are developmental disorders diagnosed and treated?

Parents who have concerns about their child’s development should first discuss their concerns with their child’s pediatrician. A pediatrician can do an initial screening to determine whether the concerns warrant a referral to a specialist. If so, a referral can be made to a developmental pediatrician, clinical psychologist, or another specialist well equipped to provide further testing and determine a diagnosis.

Furthermore, the age at which a developmental disorder is diagnosed depends on how severe the impairments are and what functions are affected. Autism spectrum disorder, for example, primarily affects personal and social functioning skills, so it can be diagnosed as early as age two or three (when personal and social skills are being learned). This is much earlier than a learning disorder will likely be diagnosed, because learning disorders primarily affect academic functioning; this types of disorder likely wouldn’t be diagnosed until a child starts school at age five, if not later.

Treatment for a developmental disorder is also dependent on the type of disorder and the severity of the impairments. Common treatments include medication, therapy, and academic support at school. These treatments can be used individually, but are most effective when used in combination.

Medication options, too, vary based on the disorder that is being treated. The academic impairments of learning disabilities and ADHD are most often treated with stimulant medications, cognition-enhancing medications, or antihypertensive drugs. On the other hand, some symptoms of autism spectrum disorder can be treated with antidepressant medications (SSRIs) or antipsychotic medications.

Therapies can help improve skills and reduce any behavioral problems associated with developmental disorders. Popular therapies for treating developmental disorders include applied behavior analysis (ABA), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and sensory integration (SI) therapy.

  • Applied behavior analysis therapy is a behavior therapy often used to treat autism spectrum disorder, but it can be applied to any behavior. ABA uses reinforcement and changes to the environment (especially the actions happening right before and right after a behavior) to change the behavior itself. ABA focuses both on increasing functional skills (personal care, social skills, academic skills, and sometimes occupational skills) and decreasing problem behaviors (anything that gets in the way of these skills, including self-harm, aggression toward others, etc.).
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy (when an individual talks directly with a mental health professional) that helps to modify dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. CBT encourages patients to challenge their distorted views and change destructive patterns of behavior.
  • Sensory integration therapy is designed to help individuals better process sensory input. The therapy is play-based, and involves sensory input such as trampolines, swinging, slides, brushing, weighted vests, etc. It is thought that SI can help increase an individual’s ability to handle a variety of sensory input.

In addition to medication and/or therapy, children often receive support in their school setting. Depending on the student’s level of impairment, they may be eligible for speech therapy, an aide to assist them in the classroom, modifications for testing, a quiet environment, or other accommodations.

Is a developmental disorder the same thing as a disability?

The word “disability” is often used interchangeably with the word “disorder” and sometimes even the word “delay” to describe limitations in a person’s functioning.

The definition of “disability,” though, varies depending on the source. The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps defines “disability” as “any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.” Similarly, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is any “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”

Since neither the World Health Organization nor the ADA specifically name the impairments that are covered, a case could certainly be made that a developmental disorder qualifies as a disability medically and under the law. Therefore, individuals with developmental disorders are protected from discrimination.

In sum, the definition of “disability” is flexible; the ADA presents a legal rather than medical definition, while the World Health Organization offers an extremely broad view of “disability.” If you have a question about what can be considered a disability, whether at school, at work, or in another situation, it is always a good idea to ask for the definition being used by a specific institution.

Can someone with a developmental disorder go to college?

The short answer: Yes. Over 11% of undergraduate students reported having a disability and, more specifically, up to 8% of college students report symptoms that could indicate ADHD. Students with all kinds of disabilities, even developmental disorders, go to college and thrive.

Searching for colleges as a student with a developmental disorder can be difficult, but not impossible. In recent years, many schools have started to offer specialized programs geared toward students with developmental disorders. These programs offer extra support including tutoring, skills-based courses, and transition planning. Programs vary by institution, and are often geared toward specific disorders (e.g., some are geared toward those diagnosed with ADHD or another learning disability, whereas others may only be open to those with autism spectrum disorder). Your choices may be limited depending on the severity of your disorder, but a targeted search should yield multiple results. There is a program that can meet your needs.

What extra support is available for students with developmental disorders attending college?

You may have received specialized assistance throughout your educational career. Public elementary, middle, and high schools are required to provide these services to students with disabilities. However, in college there will be changes. If you need help, you must ask for it and prove that you need it. You’ll have to become responsible for your own academic success in a way that is very different from what you’ve previously experienced.

Aside from the specialized programs mentioned above, students with developmental disorders can also get special accommodations: extra time on tests, help taking notes, or special placement within in the classroom. A full list of common accommodations can be found here.

Note that these resources are only available to college students if the student chooses to disclose their disability to the school. You must show proof of your disorder (e.g., your medical record), and prove that accommodations are necessary for you to succeed at the same level as non-disabled students. Talk to the staff at your (potential) school’s disability office for more information.

Page last updated: 03/2018