What is Developmental Delay?
A “developmental delay” is often used to describe any type of delay dealing with motor, speech, or thinking abilities. This may or may not be the result from a specific condition or diagnosis. A child with autism could have a diagnosis of having autism and developmental delay. Having an autism diagnosis means that the child exhibits autistic behaviors and having a developmental delay means the child also exhibits delays in developmental skills. Another example would be a child diagnosed with Down syndrome, would be diagnosed before birth via prenatal testing or at birth and also as age progresses, the developmental delays become more apparent in several areas, including motor, speech, and thinking skills. Other children may have exhibited developmental delays without having any specific diagnosis.
Each state individually defines “developmental delay” and each state provides early intervention services for children with developmental delays. It is recommended to research what your state defines “developmental delays” as, and what services are offered in your area. Remember, “developmental delay” holds different meaning to different individuals and often results in different services offered and available to assist families with children who have developmental delays.
What are Signs and Symptoms?
A child with a developmental delay(s), might play with toys for younger children or prefer interacting a child in a younger age group. Delayed motor skills in children are identified as children that might not run, skip, or jump. This is usually because they have not yet developed age-appropriate skills and cannot keep up with their peers.
“Developmental delay” is a very broad and general term and often looks different from in each individual child.
As an infant, a child is identified to have a possible developmental delay if common milestones are not acquired within a specific time frame, such as:
- Holding the head steadily up by 4 months
- Sitting by about 6 months
- Crawling by 10 months
- Waving, pointing, or imitating gestures by 12 months
- Walking by 18 months
- Manipulating ring stacks, form boards, and nesting cups by 18 months
- Saying and understanding at least 50 words by 24 months
A child who lacks an exploration of movement, meaning having a general lack of movement or does not move in a lot of different ways, might have a motor developmental delay. Infants with motor developmental delays are at risk for hypotonia, which is a lack of muscle tone, which further contributes to their motor difficulties.
Delays in motor milestones often are the most obvious behavior noticed, however, other delays might be related to a child lacking exploration of movement. An example of this, is a child learning about objects or producing speech sounds which can be affected if a child does not learn to sit or change positions. In a child’s infancy, all developmental areas are closely connected and influence each other’s progress.
Other problems some children may experience are sensory problems. Sensory problems add to movement difficulty. Examples of sensory problems are hypersensitivity to touch, incoordination, engagement in conversation or play, or an inability to plan and problem-solve movement activities. Children who have some or all of these problems also might develop social or emotional problems, such as a fear of trying new motor skills or a general lack of social interaction.
How is it Diagnosed?
Talk to your pediatrician about any concerns you have regarding your child’s development. If your child exhibits any indication of a developmental delay, early intervention is key! Surprisingly, medical problems can have an impact on overall development. Your child’s pediatrician can help identify these possible medical problems. Chronic ear infections, for example, can reduce hearing and affect the child’s speech development or balance.
Developmental delays are diagnosed by using tests designed to score a child’s movements, communication, play, and other behaviors. They then compare these test results with those of other children of the same age group. These tests are standardized, or scored on hundreds of children, in order to determine a normal range of scores for each age. If children score far below the average score for their age, they are at risk for developmental delay.
Your child’s pediatrician can perform a screening test during infancy to determine if a child is developmental progression. A parent who suspects the child is not performing the same skills as other children of the same age can request these screening tests. A screening test helps to identify which children would benefit from a more in-depth evaluation. The pediatrician can then recommend a physical therapist, who has knowledge of movement development, coordination, and medical conditions, will perform a more in-depth examination to determine a child’s developmental development.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Physical therapists first will perform an evaluation of your child, which includes having a conversation with you (the parent or guardian) and conducting an appropriate and detailed test to determine the child’s specific strengths and weaknesses. If the child has developmental delay, the therapist will problem-solve with you about your family’s routines and environment to find ways to enhance and build your child’s developmental skills.
Also with evaluating your child and the environment in which the child moves, the physical therapist can give detailed guidance on building motor skills step-by-step to reach established goals. The therapist will also provide additional resources and teach the family what they can do to help the child practice skills during the child’s everyday activities. A child’s most important influence is the family, because they can make sure the child has the opportunities and support needed to achieve each new skill. The therapist will explain how much practice is needed to help achieve a particular milestone.
Can this Condition be Prevented?
Once developmental delay has been diagnosed, there are steps to take to prevent further delay or to help the child “catch up.” However, because this diagnosis has so much variability, the outcomes of intervention vary quite a bit. The important thing to remember is that the earlier you intervene, the more likely it will be that your child can improve and not continue to fall behind.
What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?
All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat a wide variety of conditions and injuries. For children with developmental delay, you may want to consider:
- A physical therapist who is experienced in treating children with developmental delay.
- A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in pediatric physical therapy. This physical therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to this condition.
General tips when you’re looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):
- Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
- Ask about the physical therapists’ experience in helping children with developmental delay and their families.
- During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your concerns in as much detail as possible.