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Types of Development Disabilities

By: Janet Ambrose
Developmental disabilities are traditionally defined as lifelong, physical or mental impairments that are usually diagnosed prior to the age of 18. Individuals who have been diagnosed with a development disability usually experience difficulty with independent living, mobility, self-care, language, or self-sufficiency, and often require assistance from other qualified professionals. While developmental disabilities are often genetic, they can also be caused by poor maternal nutrition, drug or alcohol abuse, and physical maltreatment. According to experts, the most common types of development and mental disabilities include autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Individuals who have a friend or family member who has been diagnosed with one of these developmental disabilities—or who are simply interested in learning more about them—may want to consider consulting with a physician or other health care professional experienced in the management of the disorder in question. 


Autism is a developmental disability typically characterized by impairments in communication and social interaction. In addition, adults and children who have been diagnosed with autism often traits of restriction or repetitive behavior. In most cases, autism is identified quite early—in fact, most experts agree that this condition is most commonly diagnosed before the age of 24 months. While some medications may be useful in the management of this condition, alternative therapies have also been proven quite successful. In fact, the use of occupational, speech, and social interaction therapy has been found to be an effective compliment to more traditional forms of treatment. In most cases, research has found that individuals living with autism experience the best outcomes when they receive a combination of different types of treatment.

  • Autism—Describes the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prognosis of individuals diagnosed with autism.
  • Autism Speaks—Advocacy for individuals and family members living with autism.

Cerebral Palsy

Like autism, cerebral palsy is one of the most common types of developmental disabilities. The term “cerebral palsy” encompasses a number of similar, non-progressive conditions which limit an individual’s ability to control their physical movements. Individuals who experience cerebral palsy often exhibit poor muscle tone, joint and bone deformity, muscle spasms, and seizures. In most cases, cerebral palsy occurs due to damage of the developing brain during pregnancy, and can result in impairments in posture, movement, depth-perception, sensation, and communication. While cerebral palsy in and of itself is generally not considered to be life-threatening, it is often associated with the development of a number of other serious, potentially fatal conditions. In most cases, the management of cerebral palsy focuses on the use of physical, occupational, and speech therapy, though a reliance of certain medications to control muscle spasms or seizures is also often required.

  • Cerebral Palsy—Information for kids and family members about the causes and treatments of cerebral palsy.

Down Syndrome

Down syndrome, or Trisomy 21, is a mental disability that is traditionally associated with the presence of an extra 21st chromosome. This condition is considered to be one of the most common mental disabilities, and is often characterized by impairment in cognitive ability, limited physical growth, and specific facial characteristics. Specifically, individuals who have been diagnosed with Down syndrome often exhibit a round face, small chin, large tongue, almond-shaped eyes, and short limbs. In addition to physical abnormalities, those living with Down syndrome may also experience an increased risk for the development of GERD, hearing loss, obesity, and sleep apnea. Treatment of Down syndrome often focuses on the creative of a safe and conducive family environment, vocational training, and the on-going screening of common health conditions. Through hard work, individuals with Down syndrome can often live long, productive lives.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Other common developmental disabilities include fetal alcohol syndrome. As suggested by the name, fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when pregnant women consume high amounts of alcohol during pregnancy. Individuals who are diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome often exhibit specific facial characteristics, attention deficits, poor memory, mental health problems and possible drug addiction. In addition, children who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome often experience impairments in intellectual ability—fetal alcohol syndrome is believed by many professionals to be one of the most common causes of intellectual disability in the world. Some experts suggest that the life-long care for an individual living with fetal alcohol syndrome can top $800,000. Typically, this care includes the use of prescription medications, various therapies, and educational services.


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