Developmental Disabilities in Children

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Contact the Developmental Medicine Center

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What is a developmental delay?

When a child is young the term delay is sometimes used to describe developmental skills being at a lower level than expected for a child’s ages, such as language, motor, cognition or play. As a child becomes older, he or she may or may not “catch up” in all or some of these developmental skills. The term intellectual disability may later be used for some of these children, when it is felt that they will no longer totally catch up in their development based on reliable tests of cognition (intelligence), adaptive skills (everyday functioning), interaction with the environment or surroundings, and supports needed within the community.

How is the diagnosis made?

The diagnosis of developmental delay is made by any number of professionals, including developmental pediatricians, neurologists, and psychologists. This diagnosis is often made in early childhood when a child does not meet typically expected developmental milestones.

The diagnosis of intellectual disability is made based on the results of cognitive abilities (intelligence) and adaptive skills (how a child functions in every day activities). A psychologist generally administers the cognitive testing. The psychologist or developmental pediatrician may also determine adaptive skills. Consideration also needs to be given to the environment in which a person lives, and the manner in which he or she interacts with others on a daily basis. The diagnosis is usually made after infancy between the preschool and school age-age periods. There are different classifications of intellectual disability: Mild, Moderate, Severe, Profound, Unspecified.

Can a child with developmental delays or intellectual disability have other disabilities too?

A child with intellectual disability may or may not have other disabilities. Some common developmental disabilities associated with intellectual disability are autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and vision or hearing impairments.

Where does my child receive his or her needed services?

Until your child reaches the age of 3, services are provided through Early Intervention system. A services coordinator (case manager) can work with you to develop an Individualized Services Plan. Services may include individual therapies, play groups, parent training, family counseling, or transportation services.

At age 3, your public school system begins to provide the needed school and therapy services. As noted in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with developmental delays and intellectual disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education based on their needs. School systems are required to work with parents to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP describes the child’s specific needs, and how the school system will meet them. Both special education and other school based services are provided free of charge.

What can I do to help my child?

While different therapists, educators, and other specialists can provide special training, the best thing you can do is include your child in warm and loving family living. Assist your child to develop as much independence and as many functional skills as possible. Maintain open and ongoing communication with your child’s teachers and therapists.

The Developmental Medicine Center provides initial evaluation and diagnosis for children infancy through adolescence. In addition, the DMC provides follow-up care for your child.

We are grateful to have been ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best children's hospitals in the nation for the third year in a row, an honor we could not have achieved without the patients and families who inspire us to do our very best for them. Thanks to you, Boston Children's is a place where we can write the greatest children's stories ever told.”
- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

Boston Children's Hospital 300 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115 617-355-6000 | 800-355-7944

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