What is Developmental Delay?

This article addresses your most pressing questions about developmental delay, including what it is, what causes it, and what treatment options are available.

By Ability Central

17 May, 2024

A white baby girl with red hair and blue eyes scrunches up her face at the camera while her mother kisses the side of her head

In the United States, 17.3% of children ages 3 to 17 have some form of developmental delay (DD). While most children with DD catch up to developmental milestones with proper help, some developmental delays lead to other conditions in adolescence and adulthood. 

This article will answer your biggest questions about developmental delay, including:

  • What is developmental delay?
  • What are the four types of developmental delay?
  • What causes developmental delay?
  • What are the different types of diagnoses that are associated with developmental delay?
  • What are the early signs and symptoms of developmental delay?
  • What are the treatment options for developmental delay?
  • Where can I learn more about developmental disability services?


What is developmental delay?

A developmental delay (DD), also called a developmental disability or developmental disorder, means that compared to their peers, a child is slow to reach milestones in one or more of the areas of development. 

Not all delayed milestones are cause for concern, but they should still be addressed with your pediatrician right away. Early intervention is the key to “growing out of” many developmental delays, if possible. 


What are the four types of developmental delay?

Developmental delays may occur in any of these four areas:

  • Cognitive skills. These include thinking, learning, and understanding information. A child with a cognitive delay may struggle to follow directions or solve problems.
  • Social and emotional skills. These include getting along with others, expressing feelings, and communicating needs. A child with social or emotional delays may struggle to understand social cues, have a conversation, or deal with changes to a routine.
  • Speech and language skills. These skills include using and understanding language. A child with speech and language delays may struggle to speak words or understand what others are saying.
  • Fine and gross motor skills. These skills include coordinating small (fine) and large (gross) muscles. These are considered physical delays.
    • A person with a fine motor delay may have difficulty holding an object in their hands, like learning to use a spoon.
    • A child with a gross motor delay may have difficulty rolling over, sitting up, or walking. Motor skills can also be related to balance, as well as things like holding your head up without wobbling.


What is a global developmental delay?

A global developmental delay (GDD) or global learning delay (GLD) is when a child has delays in at least two of the four developmental areas. Pediatricians often diagnose GDD after a long period of regular assessments, like the milestone doctor’s appointments for infants and toddlers. 

Sometimes, a pediatrician will refer a family to a specialist, like a child psychologist, speech language pathologist (SLP), or physical/occupational therapist to assess whether a child has just one developmental delay or enough delays to diagnose GDD.

A GDD diagnosis often comes before a diagnosis of an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD). This is because cognitive skill and IQ tests do not have reliable results for children under 6. Many children initially diagnosed with GDD will have their diagnosis updated or changed to I/DD once they are old enough for more accurate testing options.


What causes developmental delay?

While some environmental factors can cause developmental delays, most DD cases are caused by things outside of parents’ control. For example, a speech delay can be caused by temporary hearing loss from multiple ear infections, while a cognitive delay might occur after complications in childbirth. 

Causes and risk factors of DD include:

  • Premature birth
  • Malnutrition
  • Severe infections in early infancy
  • Head trauma or skull injury
  • Alcohol, tobacco, or drug use during pregnancy
  • Lack of oxygen during delivery
  • Genetic abnormalities that impact development for the brain or spinal cord

Abuse, neglect, and severe family stress can also cause or contribute to developmental delays. Otherwise known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), severe childhood traumas can lead to brain changes that later appear as developmental delays or GDD. 


What are the early signs and symptoms of developmental delay?

Sometimes, early signs of DD begin in infancy, and sometimes, they don’t appear until the child is older. Early symptoms may include:

  • Learning and developing more slowly than their peers
  • Hitting developmental milestones like rolling over, sitting up, crawling, or walking later than their peers
  • Difficulty communicating 
  • Trouble socializing or making friends
  • Lower scores on IQ tests after age 6
  • Inability to connect actions with consequences


What are the different types of diagnoses that are associated with developmental delay?

There are many diagnoses that mimic, cause, or co-exist with developmental delay. These include:


What is a pervasive developmental disorder?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) used to be known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). Like global developmental delay (GDD), PDD was used to describe someone with multiple developmental delays. However, certain developmental delays like difficulties relating to people, coping with change, or using/understanding language are now recognized as early signs of ASD, making PDD an outdated term.


What are the treatment options for developmental delay?

While most treatments for developmental delay focus on the child, many forms of treatment also teach skills to parents, like exercises and games to play together, or additional signs to watch out for. Parents use these skills to support their children as they work to meet new milestones together.

Testing and treatment options for developmental delay include:

  • A hearing test like an auditory brainstem response (ABR) will rule out hearing problems. An ABR uses electrodes on the head to sense whether sounds travel through the auditory nerve into the brainstem.
  • A developmental eye exam can help rule out vision issues.
  • Speech therapy can teach both children and parents how to improve communication skills through language development, speech production, and language use. 
  • Physical therapy helps children build motor skills one step at a time to reach specific goals.
  • Occupational therapy helps children with fine motor problems or difficulty processing sensory information like light, sound, and touch.

In the United States, children with developmental delays may qualify for financial assistance under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This 2004 law protects children’s right to early intervention and special education by funding certain programs at the state level. 

More specifically, IDEA gives funding to states to provide free appropriate public education options for children with disabilities ages 3 through 21. IDEA also provides funding for babies from birth to age 2, making it easier for their families to access early intervention services. This means that, depending on the severity of a child’s developmental delay, they may be able to benefit from government-funded programs from birth all the way through college.


Where can I learn more about developmental disability services?

Ability Central offers a searchable database of nonprofits that specialize in developmental delays. Whether you are seeking a diagnosis, want to understand your treatment options, or are looking to connect with others with a similar diagnosis, this is a great place to start. Visit the Service Locator today. 

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