Developmental disabilities include limitations in function resulting from disorders of the developing nervous system. These limitations manifest during infancy or childhood as delays in reaching developmental milestones or as lack of function in one or multiple domains, including cognition, motor performance, vision, hearing and speech, and behavior. These conditions may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.
Skills such as taking a first step, smiling for the first time, and waving “bye-bye” are called developmental milestones. Children develop at their own pace, so it’s impossible to tell exactly when a child will learn a given skill. However, the developmental milestones give a general idea of the changes to expect as a child gets older. If a child has a developmental delay, it is important to get help as soon as possible. Early identification and intervention can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn new skills, as well as reduce the need for costly interventions over time.
Most developmental disabilities are thought to be caused by a complex mix of factors. These factors include:
- Parental health and behaviors (such as smoking and drinking) during pregnancy
- Complications during birth
- Infections the mother might have during pregnancy or the baby might have very early in life
- Exposure of the mother or child to high levels of environmental toxins, such as lead.
Children and adults with disabilities need health care and health programs for the same reasons anyone else does—to stay well, active, and a part of the community.