What Are Neurodevelopmental Disorders?

Little boy in child occupational therapy session doing sensory playful exercises with his therapist

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What Are Neurodevelopmental Disorders?

Neurodevelopmental disorders (NDs) are types of psychological disorders that influence how the brain functions and alters neurological development, causing difficulties in social, cognitive, and emotional functioning. The most common NDs are autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Many NDs are not as well known or widely studied.

NDs usually onset during stages of development which makes them most present in toddlers, children, and adolescents, but continue to persist into adulthood, or may go undiagnosed until one is an adult. There are instances in which a child outgrows the symptoms associated with an ND. 

Types

There are many different types of NDs, below are a few of the most prevalent ones; 

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Communication disorders
  • Conduct disorders 
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Learning disorders
  • Neurodevelopmental motor disorders
  • Schizophrenia

Prevalence

NDs are more prevalent in males than females. This gender difference may be due to genetics, biology, and risk factors. Although NDs, like ASD, are more present in males, researchers determined not much of a gender difference in symptoms. 

Comorbidity of other conditions is highly likely in individuals with NDs and it is also common for an individual to be diagnosed with multiple NDs. A study that explored the comorbidity of NDs with mental disorders in children ages 7 through 12, determined that of those with NDs, some had coexisting psychiatric disorders or were diagnosed with multiple NDs. The study included 407 boys and girls. After parent interviews, it was determined that 55% of the children were diagnosed with at least one ND. 

Of the 181 participants with ADHD, almost 40% did not have a comorbid condition, 26% did however have an anxiety disorder, while others had a variety of other conditions. There appeared to be only 18 children with ASD, and of these boys and girls, 36% also had ADHD, 44% had a tic disorder (TD), 36% had an anxiety disorder, and the others had a variety of other conditions or no comorbidity. 

Although more boy participants were diagnosed with an ND, a greater number of girls with an ND had additional comorbid disorders. This study does have its limitations: a large one being that the only measure of the evaluation was parental interviews, which only consisted of just one interview at that. 

Symptoms

Symptoms of NDs are dependent on the ND, but general descriptions usually consist of impairments with the following; 

These impairments must impact social abilities and limit functioning within society. 

Causes

The concrete cause of NDs is not yet clear. There are various possible reasons for the onset of NDs. From the research that does exist on the cause of NDs, it is prevalent that both biology and environment play a role. Predispositions like genetics and hormones can be triggered by risk factors such as stress, illness, or trauma

Epigenetics is an important factor in the development of conditions like NDs. Epigenetics is when an individual’s environment and behavior can alter DNA and how genes operate within the body. Early childhood experiences, like trauma, neglect, or toxic environments, have recently been acknowledged as a prime risk factor in developing psychological disorders, including NDs. 

Research also determined an association between prenatal events and the development of medical conditions. Maternal diet can influence whether an individual grows up to develop metabolic diseases, like obesity and diabetes. Researchers believe that prenatal events, such as diet, could have similar influences on the development of NDs.

Treatment

There aren't many treatment options for those with NDs, but research has determined some effective interventions. Although there is no cure for NDs there are methods that help with managing and coping with symptoms.

Behavioral Therapy

Therapies like applied behavioral analysis (ABA), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), speech therapy, and developmental therapy have all been shown to be beneficial for ND symptoms. CBT, Psychotherapy, and other behavioral therapies are utilized for adults with NDs like ADHD. ABA has a significant impact on behavior in children with NDs, especially ASD and ADHD. 

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is a stimulation therapy that is commonly used for depression, but research trials have found prospects for rTMS to offer benefits for those with NDs. In a review of multiple studies, rTMS didn’t appear to have any severe adverse effects for children and adolescents with NDs. 

rTMS treatment improved social functioning and behaviors for some participants with ASD. There were also benefits in those with tic disorders, in which treatment helped lessen tics. Unfortunately, rTMS did not show prospects for those with ADHD; it caused some irritation, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness in some individuals. Overall, rTMS has the potential to be an acknowledged treatment method for a few NDs. 

Overall, rTMS has the potential to be an acknowledged treatment method for a few NDs.

Medication

Medication is sometimes prescribed to both children and adults with NDs. For ADHD, specifically, physicians may prescribe medication to help in managing symptoms like hyperactivity, agitation, inattentiveness, etc. Medication may consist of stimulants, antidepressants, or other pharmaceuticals suited to enhance cognition.

Medication, however, should not be the first choice when treating NDs like ADHD and AS. Experts express trying therapies and other strategies before medication. For pediatric patients, researchers suggest neurodevelopmental therapies and parenting training before incorporating medication into treatment routines.

Conventional and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Nutrition, physical exercise, and recreational activities can also play a role in managing symptoms of NDs. It is important to develop healthy lifestyle habits for children and adults with NDs. 

Complementary and alternative (CAM) medicines like supplements and mind/body practices, such as acupuncture, yoga, etc., are other options that are explored before seeking medication or are used along with medication.

Adults with NDs most seek out these types of interventions. The national percentage of adults who engage in CAM treatment is 36-38%, but the number of children who participate in CAM treatment is unclear. A population review reported 11.8% of children throughout the population experienced CAM therapy at least once, but this number may not be accurate. It was stated in another report that the amount of children that engage in CAM treatment is between 2%-55%, but this is not a population report. 

Family Impact

A child being diagnosed with an ND is a huge adjustment for parents and loved ones. In attempts to make life easier for the child, a significant load is placed on the family. A large number of studies found that parents of children with NDs report feeling a greater amount of stress than those with children without an ND.

Researchers found that this form of stress can have negative influences on the mental health of parents, most commonly in mothers. There also appears to be a negative impact on marriages when overly stressed. These factors are why parents need to engage in positive interventions to manage and cope with the stress of caring for a child with an ND, such as mindfulness stress-reducing practices, marriage counseling, meditation, etc. Studies have found that these interventions have been effective in reducing stress and strengthening the parent’s marriage.

A Word From Verywell

NDs are often conditions that persist throughout an individual’s life—and symptoms can be challenging to relationships, productivity, social skills, and communication. They can create limitations for a person and impact their abilities to function within society.

Although NDs have their share of challenges, a person can still live a fulfilling life with effective coping and treatment methods. Support of loved ones and caretakers is also an additional attribute to the quality of life for those with NDs.

If you suspect that your child may present symptoms of an ND, speak to your healthcare provider who can refer you to a specialist and provide answers that you and your child need. If you think you may have an undiagnosed ND, consult your physician and consider reaching out to a specialist. 

7 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.
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By Tiara Blain
Tiara Blain, MA, is a freelance writer for Verywell Mind. She is a health writer and researcher passionate about the mind-body connection.