Developmental Therapist: Your Expert in Developmental Challenges & Delays

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What is a developmental therapist?

A developmental therapist (DT) is a healthcare provider who specializes in helping people with developmental delays, disabilities and challenges improve their cognitive, social, motor and functional skills. This includes walking, speaking, learning, playing, dressing, eating, working, and participating in hobbies. A DT helps patients of all ages adjust their environment and organize tasks to support their abilities.

A DT typically: 

  • Evaluates a patient's ability to perform developmental tasks and activities, and creates a customized treatment plan based on medical history, age, needs, and activity goals

  • Performs home, school, and job site assessments

  • Educates patients and teaches them the skills they need to participate in activities at home, school and work

  • Recommends and provides training in the use of adaptive equipment, such as splints, bathing equipment, dressing devices, and ergonomic tools and utensils

  • Provides support and guidance to family members, teachers, and other caregivers

  • Collaborates with other healthcare providers, such as physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, doctors, psychologists, and social workers

A DT may also be known as a development therapist.

Who should see a developmental therapist?

People with a wide variety of disorders and conditions may benefit from developmental therapy, including those with Down syndrome; autism spectrum disorder; visual, auditory or speech impairment; cerebral palsy; and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Most people take their children to a developmental therapist when their doctor refers them to one after observing a developmental delay or diagnosing a condition in which developmental delays are common. Often, the purpose of the referral is to assess the child’s ability to develop typical life skills as they grow and mature. Doctors may refer adults with developmental challenges to a DT to improve self-care, social, and independent living functions.

When should you see a developmental therapist?

Depending on your state’s laws, you may or may not need a doctor’s referral to take your child to a developmental therapist. You should also check with your insurance plan, Medicaid plan, or other healthcare plan about a referral before seeing a DT.

Your doctor may suggest that your child see a DT if he or she has any of the following symptoms or conditions including: 

  • Difficulty performing activities that require motor skills, such as picking up food or walking

  • Difficulty completing self-care activities, such as toileting or eating

  • Impaired senses, such as difficulty seeing or hearing

  • Delayed ability to communicate or interact socially

  • Behavior or self-control problems

  • Ongoing challenges in the ability to focus on games or tasks

What does a developmental therapist treat?

A developmental therapist treats disorders and conditions that affect a person’s development and ability to perform activities of daily living, learning, and communicating including:

  • Behavior and conduct problems including oppositional defiant disorder, school conduct problems, depression, and anxiety

  • Cognitive and developmental disorders including autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing (integration) disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and intellectual disability

  • Developmental delays including those involving motor, communication and thinking (cognitive) skills

  • Genetic and congenital conditions including birth defects, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and muscular dystrophy

  • Impaired senses including difficulty hearing and seeing

  • Learning and attention disorders including ADHD, hyperkinesis, dyslexia (reading disability), and dyscalculia (math learning disability)

What does a developmental therapist test?

A developmental therapist can order or perform the following evaluations and assessments:

  • Auditory assessments including hearing, balance, and other ear-related functions

  • Fine motor skill evaluations including handwriting, hand and wrist strength, grasp strength and patterns, and finger manipulations

  • Gross motor skill evaluations including upper body strength, muscle tone, trunk stability, balance, and range-of-motion tests

  • Sensory processing assessments including pain sensitivity, frustration tolerance, emotional deficiency, social interaction, and speech, communication, and language ability evaluations

  • Visual assessments including visual tracking, reading ability, letter recognition, alignment ability, and hand-eye coordination

What procedures and treatments does a developmental therapist do?

Developmental therapists can order or perform the following treatments:

  • Activities of daily living training including techniques for bathing, dressing and feeding oneself

  • Assistive device training including the proper use of grab bars, canes, walkers, toilet seats, bath seats, reachers, grabbers, and custom splints

  • Body mechanics training including basic body alignment and exercises and activities to improve range of motion, strength, and gross and fine motor skills

  • Cognitive training including programs to improve communication, reasoning, problem-solving, memory, sequencing, and perceptual skills

  • Environment modifications including rearranging or replacing furniture, keeping frequently used items accessible, and installing handrails and grab bars

  • Low vision modifications including using indirect lighting, installing nightlights, reducing reflective surfaces, maximizing contrasts, using large print, and using textures and bright markings for stairs, edges, and appliance dials

  • Play therapy to help children learn how to interact cooperatively with their siblings and school peers

  • Sensory integration training including techniques to improve sensations, touch, balance, and spatial awareness

Developmental therapist training and certification

The therapist’s professional training and experience affect the quality of care you receive. Even if you have a referral to a developmental therapist from your doctor or another specialist, ask the therapist about their training background, clinical experience, and success treating patients with challenges like your child’s. To set up a developmental therapy appointment today, find a developmental therapist near you.

When you find a therapist with exceptional qualifications, meet with the therapist to see if her style of delivering care is compatible with your family’s goals and expectations. Keep in mind that other healthcare professionals, including social workers and psychologists, may practice developmental therapy but do not adopt ‘developmental therapist’ as a title. They may also be an excellent choice for developmental therapy.

Licensing requirements for developmental therapists vary from state to state. A developmental therapist typically has:

  • Graduated with a bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited program in a discipline related to developmental therapy, such as social work, developmental psychology, or early childhood education

  • Completed supervised clinical experience

  • Passed a certification exam that validates the therapist's specialized knowledge and skills in developmental therapy

Developmental therapists may focus their practice on certain patient populations, disorders and conditions, or in certain settings. Concentrations within developmental therapy include:

  • Developmental disabilities in adults

  • Developmental disabilities in children

  • Hearing disabilities

  • Orientation and mobility disabilities

  • Vision disabilities

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 22
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Developmental Therapy. Illinois Department of Human Services. http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=31504

  2. Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.ncdhhs.gov/assistance/disability-services/intellectual-developmental-disabilities

  3. Understanding a Developmental Therapists Education. Illinois Developmental Therapy Association.  http://www.illinoisdta.org/therapy_education.php?page=14

  4. What is a Developmental Therapist? Illinois Developmental Therapy Association. http://www.illinoisdta.org/devlopment_therapy.php?page=13

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