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Identification and risk factors of developmental disorders in children

Child Development refers to a process in which children go through changes in skill development during the predictable time periods called developmental milestones. So, developmental disorders occur when children have not reached these milestones by predicted by expected predictable time.

Crucial areas of developments

Developmental disorders can occur in all the following areas of development or may just happen in one or more of them:

  • Cognitive development- This is the child’s ability to learn and solve problems. For example, a two-month-old baby learning to explore the environment with hands or eyes to five-year-old learning to do some math problems.
  • Social and Emotional- This is the child’s ability to interact with others, including helping themselves and self-control. For example, a six-week baby’s smiling, a 10-month baby saying bye-bye, or a five-year-old boy knowing how to take turns in a game at school.
  • Speech and language- This is the child’s ability to both understand and use language, or we call it receptive language and expressive language. For example, a 12-month-old baby says his first words, a 2-year-old naming his body parts or 5-year-old learning to say feet instead of ‘foots’. 
  • Fine motor skills- This is a child’s ability to use small muscles, especially their hands and fingers to pick small objects, like holding a spoon or turning the pages or later using a crayon to draw.
  • Gross motor- This is a child’s ability to use large muscles. For example, a six-month-old baby learns to sit up with support or a 12-month-old baby learns to pull up to stand holding on to furniture or a five-year-old learns to skip.

Therefore, additional growth in each of the developmental areas is related to the growth in other areas. So if there is a difficulty in one area, for example, speech and communication, it is likely to influence the development in other areas like the social and emotional areas. 

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Risk factors for developmental disorders

Genetic and environmental factors– Children are placed at a genetic risk by being born with a genetic or chromosomal abnormality, for example, Down syndrome. Environmental risk results from exposure to harmful agents either before or after birth. Poor maternal nutrition, exposure to toxins like lead and mercury, or infections passed from mother to baby during pregnancy. 

Warning signs for developmental disorders

Behavioural warnings– The child does not pay attention or stay focused on an activity for a long time as other peers of the same age focus on unusual objects for a long period of time. Avoids or rarely makes eye contact, gets usually frustrated or shows aggressive behaviours, appears to be very stubborn, stares into spaces, rocks body or self-talk, does not seek love and approval from parents. 

Warning signs for gross motor– The child has stiff arms or legs, has a floppy or limp body posture compared to other kids the same age, uses one side of the body more than and has very clumsy motor mannerisms. 

Visual skills warning– The child has a poor eye to eye gaze, rubs, eyes frequently turns or tails or holes head in strained or unusual positions when trying to look at objects has difficulty focusing and making eye contact brings objects too close to his eyes to see things.

Hearing skills warning– The child talks in a very loud or a very soft voice, seems to have difficulty responding when called from across the room, turns body so that the same ear is always turned towards the sound, or doesn’t startle to loud noises, fails to develop sounds or words that would be appropriate for the age. 

How are developmental disorders identified? 

Developmental disorders are identified through two types of play-based assessment: 

  • Developmental screening- It is a test, a quick and general measurement of skills. Its purpose is to identify children who are in need of further evaluations.
  • Developmental evaluations- A screening test can be done by either handing over a questionnaire to a parent or asking about the developments of children for that age. Developmental evaluation is a long, in-depth assessment of the child’s skills, and it should be administered by a highly trained professional.

Evaluation tests are used to create a profile of a child’s strengths and weaknesses in all areas of development. So the results of the developmental evaluations are used to determine if the child is in need of early intervention and treatment plans.


Note: The article is based on inputs from:

  • Dr Shilpa Rao, Paediatrician & Autism Specialist Bangalore
  • Dr Manu Arun, Paediatrician, Child Development Consultant & Author, Founder & Partner – Sri Narayana Child Clinic, Dr Manu’s Development Center & Empower Activity
  • Mr Amal Kiran, Founder & CEO Daffodil Health

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