What Is Global Developmental Disorder?

Physical therapists helping children

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Global developmental delay (GDD), sometimes referred to as global developmental disorder, is a neurodevelopmental diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). GDD is a form of intellectual disability, which is diagnosed when an individual under age five exhibits clear signs of a developmental delay but cannot be evaluated for a more specific diagnosis due to their age.

For an individual to meet the criteria for GDD, they must experience delays in achieving milestones in several areas of intellectual functioning and learning. A provider will re-evaluate someone with a diagnosis of GDD as they get older to obtain a more specific and accurate diagnosis.

Characteristics of Global Developmental Disorder

According to the DSM-5, “Global developmental delay, as its name implies, is diagnosed when an individual fails to meet expected developmental milestones in several areas of intellectual functioning.”

GDD does not have a specific set of symptoms like other DSM diagnoses but instead refers to general delays that cannot be more specifically identified at the time of the assessment.

Symptoms of GDD can include, but are not limited to:

  • Delays in motor skills (including crawling and walking)
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills
  • Language and communication delays
  • Difficulty understanding communication
  • Difficulty with problem-solving
  • Difficulty with social skills

Identifying and Diagnosing Global Developmental Disorder

Providers diagnose intellectual disabilities by assessing an individual’s cognitive and adaptive functioning. Although adaptive functioning can be evaluated from birth, many cognitive tests (also referred to as IQ tests) require that a child be at least six years old for testing.

Some IQ tests can evaluate children younger than six, but long-term research shows that these scores do not accurately predict future learning prior to age six.

Providers can identify developmental delays in many different ways, including:

  • Diagnostic Interview with the Parent or Guardian: This interview consists of gathering extensive, detailed information about the child’s history so far, developmental progress, and any known medical issues or injuries.
  • Vineland-3: The Vineland-3 measures adaptive functioning in several domains, including communication, daily life skills, social skills, and motor skills. There is a parent form that can be administered as early as birth, and there is a teacher form that can be administered starting at age three.
  • Adaptive Behavior Assessment System-3: The ABAS-3 measures an individual’s adaptive skills from birth through their lifespan and assesses for developmental and learning disabilities, neuropsychological disorders, and physical impairments.
  • Bayley-4: The Bayley scales measure cognitive, language, motor, social, emotional, and adaptive behavioral growth in preschool-age children to determine whether developmental delays are present.

Causes of Global Developmental Delay

Because GDD is a general term and not a specific diagnosis, many different things can cause a child to experience a delay with this label. Sometimes, genetics can cause developmental delays. Other times, the environment can cause GDD, both before and after the child is born.

GDD can begin before birth when caused by exposure to drugs or other toxic substances, premature birth, prenatal infections, or hemorrhages. Following birth, head traumas or certain infections such as meningitis can cause GDD. Finally, malnutrition, abuse, or physical neglect can cause a child to experience developmental delays.

Treatment for Global Developmental Disorder

Sometimes, children outgrow developmental delays and catch up to their peers with minimal intervention. However, many benefit from treatments and services to help them reach their full potential.

Because “Global Developmental Disorder” is a general term for delays that can manifest in many different ways, providers determine the most appropriate interventions on a case-by-case basis.

Treatments that can help with GDDs include:

  • Birth to Three Programs: These programs emphasize helping a child reach missed milestones and catch up to their peers.
  • Early Childhood Special Education: Preschool and kindergarten programs can offer individual special education to help meet a child’s specific needs when the child exhibits developmental delays.
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapists can help a child by teaching them exercises and skills to catch up on motor delays or recover from an injury that might be causing a delay.
  • Speech Therapy: Speech therapists can help children learn to use language to express their needs by emphasizing articulation, vocabulary, or other forms of communication.
  • Occupational Therapy (OT): Occupational therapists help with adaptive skills. OT can help alleviate sensory issues, develop fine motor skills, or complete other functional tasks.
  • Re-Evaluation: Because GDD is a general term for unspecified developmental delays, as the child gets older and can undergo more specific assessments, re-evaluation can help identify and understand their delays and provide a more specific diagnosis.

As the child gets older, they will need re-assessment to gather more specific information about their delays and get more specific information about their diagnosis or diagnoses.

Support for Global Developmental Disorder

Some children diagnosed with GDD are able to catch up developmentally and will no longer meet the criteria for a developmental disorder as they get older. Others continue to experience mild, moderate, or severe difficulties throughout their lifetime.

Parents and caregivers whose child has a diagnosis of GDD can ask their treatment team questions they have about their child’s specific delays and what interventions might help them catch up. They may also benefit from support groups where they can connect with other families going through similar situations.

Early intervention is important in helping children live their best lives. Understanding a child’s developmental delays and offering appropriate treatment can prevent future delays and allow them to catch up to their peers.

5 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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  2. National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. Assessing and advocating for gifted students: Perspectives for school and clinical psychologists.

  3. Habibullah H, Albradie R, Bashir S. Identifying pattern in global developmental delay children: A retrospective study at King Fahad specialist hospital, Dammam (Saudi Arabia)Pediatr Rep. 2019;11(4):8251. Published 2019 Dec 2. doi:10.4081/pr.2019.8251

  4. Choo Y, Agarwal P, How C, Yeleswarapu S. Developmental delay: identification and management at primary care levelsmedj. 2019;60(3):119-123.

  5. Mithyantha R, Kneen R, McCann E, Gladstone M. Current evidence-based recommendations on investigating children with global developmental delayArchives of Disease in Childhood. 2017;102(11):1071-1076.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.