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What are developmental disabilities?

Dr. Tracey Smythe explains developmental disability and its impact on child development.
TRACEY SMYTHE: Before we go on to define developmental disability. Let’s first have a quick think about terminology. We’re using the term developmental disability on this course. But an array of different terms are used across different countries and settings. Including developmental disorder, developmental difficulty or delay, intellectual and developmental disability, and neurodevelopmental disability, to name a few. These terms are often used interchangeably, and this can cause a great deal of confusion for parents and children, and indeed, healthcare professionals. For the purpose of this course, we’re going to be using the term developmental disability as a means to describe a diverse group of developmental conditions and impairments across physical, sensory, learning, language, or behavioural areas.
These developmental conditions often emerge during the period of early child development. Either before birth, during birth, or in the first years of life. Developmental disabilities will remain present throughout a child’s life, but appropriate interventions and support can help to maximise the health and well-being of children with developmental disabilities. Thereby improving their quality of life, and their family’s quality of life. From this definition, we can separate out three components of developmental disability. The developmental condition, the impairment to body function or structure, and how a developmental disability is experienced by a child. We will look at each of these components in greater detail over the remainder of the week, but let’s quickly define each now.
Developmental condition refers to the status of a child’s bodily functioning. A developmental condition could be caused by a number of factors, and will often alter a child’s biological system. Often a medical diagnosis results. Examples include cerebral palsy, which is often caused by injury to the brain. Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality. And autism, which has a number of potential causes. The condition contributes to an impairment, or multiple impairments, across a child’s functioning. Whether that be impairments in physical, sensory, or language function, difficulties with cognition or behaviour. Children with impairments can have difficulties with participating in activities and social inclusion, such as play and going to school. In other words, they may experience disability.
This experience is not the same for all children. And will depend on environmental factors, like whether there is accessible equipment and playgrounds. Or laws protecting the rights of children with developmental disabilities to go to school. It will also depend on personal factors like a family’s level of wealth, and degree of social support. It is important to understand that a diagnosed condition will contribute to a developmental disability, but it is not the defining characteristic of the disability itself. We will think about these concepts in more depth over subsequent steps. So how does a developmental disability impact on a child’s growth and development?
As we know, a child’s development is influenced by a variety of stimuli in their earliest years, enabling them to develop skills and behaviours. These skills and behaviours continue to reinforce one another, and promote future learning and development. An impairment can cause difficulties in the development of one or more domains. For instance, a child with autism may have difficulty with social communication. Difficulties acquiring one skill may also make it difficult for a child to develop another related skill. For example, a child with cerebral palsy may have trouble learning to crawl. Which will make it more difficult for them to explore their environment, and will limit their ability to engage with other children and adults.
As a result, their social and emotional development may be restricted. As another example, a child with a visual impairment may find it challenging to explore their wider environment. And so may experience a delay in the acquisition of motor skills or social communication. Impairments can disrupt development. But it’s important to remember that the impact of this disruption will depend both on the severity of the condition, and the level of developmental support. If support is tailored to the needs of the child, disruption to development can be minimised. For example, assistive products may assist a child with cerebral palsy in exploring their environment, and interacting with other children and adults.
In a similar way, supporting the other senses of a child with visual impairment, perhaps by describing their surroundings or through touch, may encourage them to explore their wider environment. In the next step, we will learn more about specific developmental conditions across different domains of development. Before moving onto this step, be sure to check into the discussion at the bottom of the page.

In this step, Dr. Tracey Smythe will define developmental disability and consider three components that make up the term. Dr. Smythe will end the presentation by discussing how developmental disabilities impact a child’s development.

Dr. Smythe is a Paediatric Physiotherapist and Assistant Professor at ICED and LSHTM, with experience developing early intervention programmes for children with developmental disabilities.

In the following steps, we will look in greater detail at the three concepts raised in this video: the condition, the impairment and the disability.

As ever, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the presentation. Is this the first time you have learned about developmental disabilities? Does the understanding of the term differ in your setting?

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Integrated Healthcare for Children with Developmental Disabilities

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