Developmental Disabilities: Types, Causes, Coping

a teacher and student

Kobus Louw / Getty Images

Development disabilities refer to a group of conditions that are present at birth and that impact intellectual abilities, physical abilities, language, and behavior. These disabilities are usually identified in childhood and affect a person throughout their lives. Examples of developmental disabilities include ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, and cerebral palsy. Developmental disabilities are common, affecting about 1 in 6 children.

Here, we’ll look at the most common developmental disabilities, what causes them, how they are diagnosed, and how they are treated.

Most Common Developmental Disabilities

There are many different kinds of developmental disabilities. Disabilities affect a person in different ways, and to varying extents. Some developmental disabilities are more common than others.

A 2019 study published in Pediatrics looked at the prevalence of different disabilities among children aged 3-17 between 2015-2017. They found that, overall, 17.8% of children had a developmental disability.

According to the study, the ten most common developmental disabilities, in order of prevalence, were:

  • ADHD
  • Learning disabilities
  • Various other developmental delays
  • Autism
  • Speech impairments, like stuttering and stammering
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Seizure disorders
  • Hearing loss (moderate and profound)
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Blindness

Developmental Disability vs. Intellectual Disability

Many people are understandably confused about the difference between a developmental disability and an intellectual disability. Let’s unpack this.

Intellectual disabilities include any disability that affects brain functioning or intelligence, including your ability to learn new concepts, use logical reasoning, problem solve, and use other mental skills. They also refer to socializing and adaptive life skills which require mental and intellectual capabilities.

Intellectual disabilities fall under the umbrella of developmental disabilities, but not all developmental disabilities are intellectual disabilities. For example, physical disabilities on their own, like blindness and being hard of hearing, are not intellectual disabilities.

Causes of Developmental Disabilities

The cause of any particular developmental disability depends on the disability itself. Each developmental disability has different causes, and some disabilities have more than one cause. Moreover, the causes may vary from one individual to the next.

Let’s look at some of the most common developmental disabilities and their unique causes and risk factors.


The exact cause of ADHD isn’t clear yet, but experts believe genetics are likely at play. Other factors that may increase your risk of developing ADHD include a history of brain injury, exposure to lead during pregnancy or early childhood, being born premature or of low birth weight, and having a parent who consumed alcohol or smoked during pregnancy.


Autism is thought to have more than one cause, and is more likely if you have multiple risk factors. Some of the risk factors for autism are having a sibling who has autism, genetic predispositions, experiencing a birth injury, and being born to older parents.

Learning Disabilities

Researchers are still uncovering what causes different learning disabilities. Genetics may play a role, as many children with learning disabilities also have parents with learning disabilities. Other factors may include alcohol or substance abuse during pregnancy, inadequate nutrition during early childhood, and exposure to lead.

Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disabilities have various causes, because they are caused by different conditions. Conditions that may cause intellectual disabilities include fetal alcohol syndrome, Down syndrome, and fragile X syndrome. Other possible risk factors include various genetic conditions, and infections during pregnancy.

Hearing Loss

About half of all hearing loss in babies is genetic. Some babies may have a condition that includes hearing loss, such as Down syndrome or Usher syndrome. Other cases may be due to infections acquired during pregnancy or after birth, head injuries, facial or head differences, and neurological conditions.

How Are Developmental Disabilities Diagnosed?

Every child develops in their own way and in their own time, but there are some basic patterns and trajectories that you can expect to see as children grow from birth and into early childhood. When certain milestones aren’t reached as expected, this might cause a child’s parents, caregivers, or pediatricians to wonder if perhaps they are experiencing a developmental disability.

As such, children are screened throughout early childhood for signs of developmental disabilities. The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) has suggested a timetable for these screenings—at 9 months, 18 months, and 30 months. Additionally, the AAP recommends autism screening at 18 months and 24 months.

Screening tests can’t diagnose your child with a disorder. If a red flag comes up on these tests, you will likely be referred to a developmental specialist for a more thorough examination and diagnosis.

Keep in mind, too, that you don’t have to wait for a screening test to bring up any concerns with your pediatrician. Additionally, it’s quite possible to notice developmental delays in children past the age where they are screened for them. You know your child best. Always discuss any concerns you may have with their pediatricians, teachers, or a child therapist.

Coping With Developmental Disabilities

There are many effective treatments for developmental disabilities, and these treatments can make your child more able to function in their day to day life, and help them thrive and grow. In general, the earlier treatments are started for developmental disabilities, the better.

Early intervention services are known to be the most effective way to address these conditions. Many of these services are free if your child qualifies and are handled by state and local agencies.

Different disabilities require different treatment plans. Treatments may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Exercises for fine and gross motor skills
  • Special education services for learning disabilities
  • Surgery, such as heart surgery for Down syndrome
  • Special diets, such as for children with phenylketonuria (PKU)

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is ADHD considered a developmental disability?

    Yes, ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is a developmental disability. According to 2019 data from the AAP, it’s the most common developmental disability among children.

  • Is a developmental disability genetic?

    Sometimes. Some developmental disabilities are genetic, or likely have genetic influences. Other disabilities happen during pregnancy, after birth, or during early infancy.

  • Can developmental disabilities be cured?

    No, developmental disabilities can’t be cured, but treatment can help reduce symptoms and make it easier to function. Additionally, many people don’t consider developmental disabilities something that needs a “cure,” but rather a different way of being in the world that sometimes requires a little extra support.

17 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Developmental Disabilities.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Developmental Disabilities.

  3. Zablotsky B, Black LI, Maenner MJ, et al. Prevalence and Trends of Developmental Disabilities among Children in the United States: 2009–2017. Pediatrics. 2019;144(4):e20190811. doi:10.1542/peds.2019-0811

  4. Jenco M. Study: 1 in 6 children has developmental disability. AAP News.

  5. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. About Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDDs).

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is ADHD?

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

  8. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What causes learning disabilities?

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Causes and Risk Factors.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Hearing Loss in Children?

  11. Brown KA, Parikh S, Patel DR. Understanding basic concepts of developmental diagnosis in children. Translational Pediatrics. 2020;9(Suppl 1):S9-S22. doi:10.21037/tp.2019.11.04

  12. National Library of Medicine. Developmental and Behavioral Screening Tests.

  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why Act Early if You’re Concerned about Development?

  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why Act Early if You’re Concerned about Development?

  15. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What should I do if I think my child has an intellectual and developmental disability (IDD)?

  16. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What should I do if I think my child has an intellectual and developmental disability (IDD)?

  17. National Library of Medicine. Developmental Disabilities.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.