A developmental delay occurs when a child does not meet expected developmental milestones in at least one of the following areas: physical, social, emotional, intellectual, speech and language, adaptive development of fine/gross motor skills, or daily living skills, such as feeding and toileting.
Developmental delay is diagnosed when a child performs at approximately 30 percent below age norms in one or more of the aforementioned areas, excluding delays related to prematurity. The child’s progress trajectory also tends to occur more slowly than expected. Approximately eight percent of all children from birth to age six have delays in at least one area of development; these developmental delays are caused by a variety of medical and environmental factors.
Examples of developmental delays might include hearing deficiencies that have led to speech delay or undiagnosed behavioral or attention concerns that impede focus and, thus, typical development. Some conditions that commonly result in delayed development are genetic or congenital disorders, significant sensory impairments that could include hearing and vision, metabolic and neurological disorders, congenital infections, and disorders caused by exposure to toxic substances, such as fetal alcohol syndrome.
It is important to note that developmental disabilities and developmental delays are not synonymous, though they both affect the rate of development and share similar treatment strategies. A developmental disability is an issue a child will not outgrow, while a developmental delay tends to be short-lived if addressed in a timely manner.
Developmental delays do not stem from any one cause, but there are several known risk factors:
- Birth complications - Low birth weight, early birth (prematurity), and/or asphyxia, the lack of oxygen at birth
- Toxicity - lead poisoning, lack of certain nutrients, and/or exposure to alcohol and drugs prior to birth
- Trauma - physical or emotional
- Medical conditions - severe and/or long-term illnesses, injuries and/or infections
To diagnose a developmental delay, an evaluation process must be completed. The evaluation process might include observational assessment leading to an informed clinical opinion, standardized testing, developmental inventory, a behavioral checklist, an adaptive behavior measure, and a parent interview. Early intervention can help children with developmental delays to get back on track.