Disabilities in Children

Developmental disabilities include a complex group of disorders that cause physical impairments, intellectual disabilities, speech disorders, and medical conditions. Developmental disabilities are sometimes diagnosed at birth, but more often, are not easily identified until ages three to six.

Types of Developmental Disabilities

Developmental disabilities may range from mild to severe. Some of the more common developmental disabilities include:1

Developmental Delay vs. Disability

Very often, doctors will refer to a child’s developmental disabilities as “developmental delays.” This euphemistic term can be very misleading. After all, a train that’s delayed does finally arrive at the station—and delayed gratification isn’t the same thing as NO gratification!

The vast majority of developmental disabilities are genetic in origin. It is not possible to “grow out of” your genetics. Thus, children don’t “grow out of” developmental disabilities.

If you have heard stories of children with a particular developmental disability suddenly being “cured,” be very skeptical. Chances are, that child had a mild version of the disability and a great deal of therapy. As a result, that particular child may be able to function at age level, at least for a period of time.

Functioning as Adults

Children with developmental disabilities become adults with developmental disabilities. Their level of functioning (and social, economic, and career success) will depend upon a number of factors.

Early Therapy

The amount and quality of therapy that they received as children can impact functioning levels as an adult. A child who receives intensive, appropriate therapies as a youngster is more likely to build skills and self-confidence 2 —thus boosting the likelihood that he will do well as an adult.


Every person with a developmental disability is different. Some adults with such disabilities feel “disabled,” while others are determined to be as independent or successful as possible. These personal differences have a great deal to do with outcomes.

Social Network

An adult with a developmental disability may be quite isolated—or may be included in a warm and loving family and/or community. Not surprisingly, it is easier to be relatively independent in a community of people who know you and are willing and able to help you to succeed.3


The severity of the disability also plays a role in adult functioning. An adult with a mild disability may be able to work around and/or build skills to the point where they can function independently or with relatively little support. 

Type of Disability

Some developmental disabilities (such as spina bifida) make it possible for an adult to function well socially or at a job while requiring significant physical supports. Others, such as Down syndrome, may make it possible to function well socially—but require some level of support in a work setting.

Cerebral Palsy and Pregnancy

Brain damage during pregnancy can have severe effects on a child and can occur for many different reasons. In any case where a child is born with cerebral palsy, there will be an investigation into the cause of that brain damage so that doctors can determine what happened. There may be a range of reasons that a child’s brain was damaged at birth, but some of them are more common than others are.

Brain injuries that occur during pregnancy can have many different causes. Genetics can certainly play a role. In some cases, the genetic factors involved will prevent the brain cells from forming and migrating where they would normally be located, and this can lead to cerebral palsy.

There is also a condition that sometimes causes cerebral palsy that involves the development of nerve cell fibers. These fibers have a protective covering that sometimes fails to form as expected. When this happens, it can cause problems with the nerves being able to transmit signals as they normally.


Sometimes, the mother will contract an infection or other ailment that will end up harming the child while they’re in the womb. This may not be known until the child is born and the condition is actually diagnosed. In such cases, it may be found that the damage could not have been prevented, or conversely, the child may have been damaged due to a lack of appropriate and timely care or due to another medical mistake. It’s important to understand that not all brain damage is the result of a mistake on any medical provider, or most certainly, not because of anything the mother did. Sometimes, people simply fall ill and brain damage is a result of that illness.

Pregnancy Complications

Children sometimes suffer brain damage in the womb due to low amniotic fluid or for other reasons. This is sometimes avoidable, sometimes, not. When a woman has a high-risk pregnancy, doctors may recommend that a Cesarean section is performed to minimize the risk to mother and child. With today’s medical technology, it’s much easier for physicians to detect these issues before they manifest into more serious problems, and because of that, children are oftentimes spared such injuries today when they almost certainly would have suffered them before.


Sometimes, trauma that ruptures blood vessels or that causes oxygen deprivation can end up causing CP injuries. This trauma may occur in the womb or it may occur during birth. The trauma can sometimes cause the connections that provide proper communication between the nerves and the brain cells to be severed, as well, and this can lead to cerebral palsy in the newborn.

Cases where trauma could have been prevented are among the most tragic cases when children end up suffering with CP. This is sometimes the result of negligence on the part of a physician, a midwife or a nurse. There are options for the families that have been affected by this type of negligence and it’s not necessary for those families to assume that they’re on their own in these instances.


Negligence is sometimes the reason that children suffer brain damage during pregnancy. This may be because the doctor fails to diagnose a condition or because they make a wrong diagnosis. It also may be because the doctor fails to deliver care that the child and mother need, creating a delay during which the child is injured.

In situations where negligence is the issue that caused the injury, the families sometimes sue for compensation. This is one way that they can get financial assistance so that they can support their child. These cases do not always win but, when they do, the jury awards or settlements are sometimes enough to help the family pay for needed medical care.