Our differences make us unique. For some children, individuality may include living with a developmental disorder.

Developmental disorders affect everyone differently. Your child might experience mild impairment, or they may need mechanical assistance during the day.

Living with a lifelong condition doesn’t mean quality of life is absent, however. Children can lead full, happy lives, even when faced with developmental challenges.

Developmental disorders, sometimes referred to as childhood disorders, are physical or brain-based conditions that affect a child’s progress as they grow and develop necessary life skills.

These disorders may impact areas such as:

  • mobility
  • biological function
  • cognition (learning)
  • physical or emotional independence
  • language
  • the five senses and perception
  • social skills

Many childhood developmental disorders are present before birth and last throughout life. They may also occur as the result of injury, trauma, or other medical factors during childhood.

What’s the most common childhood developmental disorder?

Childhood developmental disorders can affect anyone of any race, gender, or national origin.

In the United States, approximately 17% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 live with at least one developmental disorder.

A 2019 review examining studies between 2009 and 2017 revealed that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was the most commonly seen developmental disorder in children.

Any condition that impacts development in childhood and persists into adulthood may be classified as a childhood developmental disorder.

Not all developmental disorders impact a large number of children. Your child may live with a rare genetic trait or experience an injury that causes long-term, unique effects.

Common developmental disorders include:

Autism spectrum disorder

While often lumped in under “learning disorders,” autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder and doesn’t always affect your child’s ability to learn.

Instead, behavior, communication, sensory, and social skills challenges may be the most noticeable signs.

While there may also be learning difficulties in some skill areas, many autistic children are gifted.

Learning disorders

There are three main types of learning disorders that can affect how well your child processes information.

These disorders can be present no matter what your child’s intelligence level is. Learning disorders have to do with academic weak spots, not smarts.

Reversing letters while reading or difficulty distinguishing left from right could indicate a learning disorder.

Some children may also find math challenging or may have difficulty with writing skills.

Common learning disabilities include:


Like autism spectrum disorder, ADHD is often incorrectly considered a learning disorder.

Symptoms of ADHD can include hyperactivity and difficulty focusing on the task at hand. These could lead to challenges in a learning environment, but they aren’t a learning disability.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders result from a birthparent consuming alcohol during pregnancy.

Known as FASDs, these conditions may cause a number of side effects for the growing fetus and baby, including:

  • low body weight
  • non-typical facial features
  • vision and hearing problems
  • cognitive difficulties
  • executive functioning challenges

Common types of FASDs include:

  • fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD)
  • alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder (ARND)
  • neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE)

Language disorders

If your child experiences challenges related to communication, a language disorder may be the cause.

Language disorders can include symptoms such as:

  • stuttering or stammering
  • not understanding words
  • inability to express themselves
  • difficulty speaking words or making sentences
  • delayed ability to speak

Common language disorders include:

  • auditory processing disorder
  • aphasia

Intellectual disorders

Intellectual disorders aren’t the same as learning disorders.

Intellectual disorders are diagnosed when a child has lower capacity for reasoning, learning, and applying skills. This refers to “IQ”, or intelligence quotient.

Lower than average IQ can be reflected in daily functioning and is the primary trait of intellectual disorders.

Your child may experience an intellectual disorder as the result of a different, co-occurring developmental disorder, such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

Physical challenges

Childhood developmental disorders often present as physical challenges.

It may be something obvious, such as a physical difference that requires the use of a wheelchair, or it may be something less visible, such as a change in brain structure.

Common childhood developmental disorders with physical challenges include:

Other developmental delays

Not every delay is a disorder. Some children may take longer than others to develop certain skills or hit specific developmental milestones.

Your child may take an extra 3 months to start walking, for example, but this may never develop into something that impacts adult life.

In some cases, your child may present with a developmental disorder that can’t be clearly defined. This doesn’t mean what they’re experiencing isn’t real.

Your child may be living with a developmental disorder that shares traits with many other conditions and can’t be classified as a single diagnosis.

Developmental disorder vs. intellectual disability

Intellectual disabilities are conditions that negatively impact a child’s IQ.

Developmental disorders, on the other hand, don’t necessarily have to do with intelligence.

While they can include intellectual disability, developmental disorders may also only affect behavior, mobility, or other aspects of a child’s development and growth.

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The impact of a childhood developmental disorder on adulthood may depend on the type and severity of the condition and the area of development it impacts.

Some conditions, like anxiety or depression, can be treated and managed from childhood through adulthood.

Other conditions, such as those related to language, may be outgrown with the help of targeted therapy and repetition.

Genetic traits or physical challenges that result in a developmental disorder may require mechanical aids, such as prosthetics or mobility chairs.

Many children adapt to life with a developmental disorder. If it’s always been a part of their lives, they often learn early how to accomplish things in their own way. It’s also typical to see them develop additional skills in other areas that help them cope with their challenges.

When they reach adulthood, new situations may test that ability to adapt.

Adults living with developmental disorders, like learning disabilities, may meet challenges related to:

  • employment
  • education
  • relationships
  • independence

Assistance and symptom management are available in all of these areas.

Legislation and community support programs can help adults with developmental disorders gain employment, maintain relationships, and find ways to be independent in daily life.

Many childhood developmental disorders are treatable and can be managed throughout adulthood.

Therapy, medication, and the use of daily assistance will all depend on the disorder and impact it has on daily functioning.

If you suspect your child may be showing signs of a developmental disorder, a health professional can help.

Early diagnosis and intervention can make a difference and help your little one continue a developmental trajectory.

Physical assessments and baseline child development models can let you know how your child’s progress compares to others in their age group.

In most cases, symptom management is possible and helpful.

Every child is unique and will develop at their own pace. However, in some cases, factors like genetics, biology, and injuries may get in the way of them reaching certain milestones.

Developmental disorders can result in specific challenges for a child. These can affect mobility, learning, social interaction, sensory input, and other aspects of growing up.

In most cases, professional intervention and home stimulation can help your child overcome or manage these symptoms.