Developmental Problems

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What are developmental problems?

Developmental problems are referred to under the umbrella term “developmental delays,” which describe any ongoing delay in a child’s meeting age-specific developmental milestones (as opposed to physical growth). To be a genuine medical symptom (as opposed to a child’s temporary lag in one area, which is normal), a developmental problem must affect a chain of developmental milestones and must be ongoing. Most developmental problems are recognized before the child’s second birthday.

Development problems fall into several categories affecting ongoing functional developmental milestones. These milestone categories include language skills, cognitive development (thinking and learning), social and emotional development, and gross motor and fine motor skills. Most developmental problems cross over, combining several types of developmental milestones or problems within one disorder.

Causes of developmental delay are widespread, but include inherited disorders, mental retardation, neurological damage, autistic disorders, degenerative diseases, social or environmental deprivations, deafness, and many more causes. Infants with unrecognized (treatable) medical conditions, such as congenital hypothyroidism, can have symptoms of developmental delay. Some developmental problems can be corrected or improved by addressing causes such as poor vision, deafness, and environmental factors.

Developmental problems are ongoing, persistent, and do not go away on their own. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if your child has a seizure; severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips; loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment; severe or constant vomiting; rapid heart rate; if an older child is in danger of hurting self or others; or if you suspect child abuse or neglect. Seek prompt medical care if your infant or toddler has poor eye contact; does not respond to his or her name; does not respond to others; seems isolated; is obsessed with repetitive actions; does not walk or talk within a reasonable time frame; seems to not hear or see properly; or has excessively aggressive behaviors.

If your child’s developmental problems cause you concern, seek prompt med ical care.

What other symptoms might occur with developmental problems?

Developmental problems are unique in that within any single diagnosis or disorder, more than one body system may be involved. In addition, many developmental disorders—especially learning disabilities—embrace all categories and types of developmental milestones, whether social, language, fine or gross motor, or cognitive skills. This can make it impossible to categorize the symptoms of most developmental problems within just one body system or within one category of developmental milestones. For that reason, this article will instead look at symptoms according to several major classifications of developmental problems.

Social skill symptoms that may occur along with developmental problems

Perhaps the best examples of social skill problems can be demonstrated by three categories of developmental disabilities: attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, and oppositional-defiant disorders. The autism spectrum disorders are brain disorders that range from the more severe form called autistic disorder to the much milder Asperger’s syndrome. These are also called pervasive developmental disorders. Symptoms within the autism spectrum include:

  • Absence of smiling, in early childhood

  • Excessively putting objects in rows, in early childhood

  • Inability to find appropriate ways to express frustration, in later childhood

  • Inability to know how to use toys, but the child may have an attachment to one object, in early childhood

  • Inability to respond to his or her name, in early childhood

  • Inappropriate social outbursts beyond the child’s control, in later childhood

  • Poor eye contact, in early childhood

  • Repetitious behaviors, in later childhood

  • Resistance to hugs and affection, in later childhood

  • Seeming indifference to others, in later childhood

  • Significant language delays

In ADHD, another brain condition, the main problem is behavior control that, unlike the behaviors of other children, interferes with regular life and can continue on an ongoing basis into adulthood. ADHD social symptoms occur in many varieties and combinations, but consistently include:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Impulsivity, acting or talking without thinking first
  • Inability to sit still or keep silent

Oppositional-defiant disorder and similar disorders include emotional or behavioral symptoms such as:

  • Consistent pattern of defiance or disobedience
  • Constant blaming, resentment or anger
  • Deliberate attempts to annoy others
  • Disruptive behaviors
  • Frequent loss of temper
  • Vindictive, spiteful behaviors

Language skill symptoms that may occur along with developmental problems

Developmental problems may include language skill problems including:

  • Apraxia (disorder characterized by the inability to carry out purposeful movements that have been learned)

  • Dyslexia (developmental reading disorder)

  • Lack of babbling or other communication milestones of infancy

  • Late or absent response to name

  • Long delay in using words and sentences

  • Stuttering

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, developmental problems may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if a child you are with has any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment
  • Pale or blue lips, skin, or mucous membranes
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seizure
  • Severe difficulty breathing
  • Signs suggesting the child is in danger of hurting self or others
  • Signs that are suggestive of child abuse or neglect

What causes developmental problems?

Many developmental problems remain idiopathic—that is, they do not yet have a known cause. Causes can involve a number of body systems, but most are neurological impairments. Heredity is a factor in some disorders, and there are a few other identified causes.

External or environmental causes of developmental problems

Developmental problems may be caused by external factors including:

  • Birth trauma or distress, low birth weight, premature birth
  • Drugs such as cancer or leukemia treatments in children
  • Injury or harm in utero or after birth
  • Maternal drug use or excessive alcohol consumption
  • Poor nutrition
  • Toxin exposure during pregnancy

Neurologic causes of developmental problems

Developmental problems can also be caused by disorders that cause damage to the nervous system including:

  • Central nervous system infections
  • Chronic medical illnesses (asthma, diabetes, seizures)
  • Neurobiologic aberrations in brain structure or function
  • Neurologic hearing loss or auditory processing disorders
  • Premature birth

Other causes of developmental problems

Other causes of developmental problems include:

  • Autism

  • Cerebral palsy (disorder of the brain and nervous system function)

  • Degenerative disorders such as Rett syndrome

  • Down syndrome or fragile X syndrome (genetic causes of mental retardation)

  • Infantile seizure disorders

  • Metabolic disorders (such as phenylketonuria)

  • Muscular dystrophy (inherited disorder that causes a progressive loss of muscle tissue and muscle weakness)

  • Traumatic brain injury

Questions for diagnosing the cause of your child’s developmental problems

To diagnose your child’s condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your child’s developmental problems including:

  • How long have you felt that your child has a developmental problem?
  • When did you first notice these symptoms?
  • Does your child have trouble walking or using his hands?
  • Has your child had any seizures?
  • Do you think your child has trouble seeing or hearing?
  • Does your child have trouble in social settings or with relationships?
  • Do any behaviors concern you?
  • Does your child have any other symptoms?
  • What medications does your child take?

What are the potential complications of developmental problems?

Because developmental problems can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for your child to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Acceleration of disabilities
  • Adult literacy problems
  • Adult social adjustment problems
  • Behavioral problems
  • Deteriorating abilities
  • Low self-esteem or depression
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 6
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 delay. University of Michigan Health System. http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/devdel.htm.
  2. Autism spectrum disorders (pervasive developmental disorders). National Institute of Mental Health. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/autism/complete-index.shtml.
  3. Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, 3rd, Levine MD, Carey WB, Crocker AC (Eds), Saunders Elsevier, Philadelphia 2009.