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Developmental Disabilities: Your Child’s Milestones Matter

Most parents can’t wait to hear their child’s first word. But, for some, this eagerly anticipated milestone and others don’t come when they’re expected, and that can be cause for concern.

What Are Developmental Disabilities?

More than 5 million Americans have developmental disabilities, which are conditions caused by impairments in motor, cognitive, communication or emotional skills. These conditions begin during a child’s developmental period and may impact day-to-day functioning. ADHD, speech delays, learning disabilities and autism are common developmental disabilities.

Monitoring Milestones

Developmental monitoring is the ongoing process of watching your child grow and talking with your pediatrician about whether they are meeting the typical milestones, or skills, that most children reach by a certain age.

When you take your child to a well visit, the pediatrician or nurse will ask you questions about your child’s development or will talk and play with your child to see if they are meeting milestones. Your healthcare provider also may ask about your child’s family history. Be sure to let them know about any conditions that your child’s family members have, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), learning disorders, intellectual disability or attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a free Milestone Tracker app to help parents, grandparents, early childhood education providers and doctors work together to monitor kids’ development and know when there might be a concern and if more screening is needed.

If you notice that your child is not meeting milestones, talk with your doctor or nurse about your concerns and ask about developmental screening.

Developmental Screening

Developmental screening takes a closer look at how your child is developing and is more formal than developmental monitoring. It is a regular part of some well-child visits even if there is not a concern.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends developmental and behavioral screening for all children during regular well-child visits at 9, 18 and 30 months. In addition, the AAP recommends that all children be screened specifically for ASD at 18 and 24 months.

Your child is evaluated in these skills categories:

  • Motor, such as taking first steps or buttoning a shirt
  • Cognitive, such as being able to find something that is hidden
  • Communication, such as saying or indicating what a child wants
  • Emotional, such as responding to your feelings by smiling and laughing or seeing when you’re upset

Your child’s doctor may ask you to complete a questionnaire as part of the screening process. Screening at times other than the recommended ages should be done if you or your doctor have a concern. Additional screening also is needed if a child is at high risk for ASD by having a family member with ASD or if behaviors are present that are sometimes associated with ASD.

Next Steps for Parents

If your child’s pediatrician determines there are developmental delays, the doctor will refer your child for additional services. These may include:

  • Your state’s early intervention program for kids younger than 3
  • Local public elementary school to have children 3 and older evaluated for preschool special education services
  • Physical therapist who can address delays with head control, sitting, walking, running, jumping, kicking or climbing
  • Occupational therapist who can address delays in reaching, using hands together, self-feeding and dressing
  • Speech and language pathologist who can help with delays in understanding words, talking, feeding and stuttering
  • Behavioral therapist or social worker who can help with engaging socially, paying attention to others or behavioral challenges
  • Early childhood care and education programs such as Head Start, which provides early childhood education, health services, nutrition and family services

It is important to find out if your child needs help and act promptly. Do not just wait and see. Starting services early makes it easier for your child to learn skills.

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