Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month: Types, Causes, & Treatment

Along with being the big month to go-green for St. Patrick’s Day, it’s also Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Expecting and new moms have a lot to worry about, as motherhood can be daunting.

Developmental disabilities

Prenatal months, (meaning the stage before conception and birth), can be nerve-wracking especially if you're trying to conceive. Then once you do conceive, it seems the worry never quite goes away. As last month was International Prenatal Infection Prevention Month, it’s a reminder that babies are vulnerable during pregnancy and after birth. Preventing prenatal infection is important and in some cases, can reduce the risk of developmental disabilities.

Types of Developmental Disabilities & Causes

Infectious diseases can sometimes cause developmental disabilities. However, there are several different types and causes. Unfortunately, some disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, can't be diagnosed in-utero, which is a Latin term for “in the womb.” Meanwhile, intellectual disabilities such as Down Syndrome, along with other birth defects can be detected through genetic testing as early as ten weeks into the pregnancy.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), developmental disabilities are defined as the following:

“Developmental disabilities are a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. These conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.”

There are five types of disabilities:


  1. Cognitive Disabilities: This type of disability can include intellectual disabilities such as Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and problems with learning. In most cases, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can cause cognitive impairment. Some children with more severe cognitive disabilities might have seizures. 
  2. Motor Disabilities: Cerebral palsy and Spina Bifida are two more common motor disabilities in children. Motor disabilities relate to the body's ability to move and function. Children with motor disabilities have limited leg function as well as upper body (hands and arms.) Meanwhile, there are other types of motor disabilities that tend to occur in adulthood such as: muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and essential tremor.
  3. Vision, Hearing, and Speech Disabilities: Vision impairments tend to be common in children with Down syndrome. Eye disease affects over half of all children diagnosed with Down syndrome. A high percentage of children with Down syndrome and eye problems will require eye surgery. Acute vision and hearing issues can include blindness and deafness. An astounding 60 to 80 percent of children with Down Syndrome have problems with their hearing. Meanwhile, delayed language can be caused by general developmental delay or childhood apraxia of speech (CAS). Apraxia ranges from mild to severe and is considered a neurological disorder stemming from the parietal lobes of the brain.
  4. Behavioral Disabilities: Children with ADD and ADHD can often exhibit behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, not listening, trouble following instruction, and impulsivity that can sometimes cause violent behavior. General behavior disorders are mental health related. Most mental health problems are often hereditary and can be treated by a qualified child psychologist and psychiatrist.
  5. Epilepsy: The epilepsy foundation reports that many children with epilepsy have no other developmental disorder, however children that have an existing developmental disability are 30% more prone to epilepsy. The highest risk group is children who suffered brain injuries that occured after birth,making them more than 75% more likely to experience epilepsy.

According to medical experts, developmental disabilities in children are often hereditary and genetically passed down. Some causes can also be accidental such as near drowning or a brain injury post birth. Other causes for developmental disabilities can be exposure to lead poisoning, malnutrition, metabolic disorder, and intrauterine infection. Mothers who use drugs can place an unborn fetus at risk for developmental disabilities and heavy alcohol use can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome.


Older moms are at a higher risk of having a baby with developmental disabilities as aging eggs are prone to genetic defects. This is because women are born with the total number of eggs they will have for their entire life, the older the mother, the older the eggs.

Expecting mothers are suggested to take folic acid and prenatal vitamins to encourage a healthy pregnancy. Women trying to conceive should get genetically tested if they have concerns. Expectant mothers with the MTHFR genetic mutation are essentially unable to absorb folic acid which can lead to miscarriage and other potential developmental disabilities in her unborn fetus.

Expecting mothers with MTHFR mutation are highly recommended to take L-methylfolate (folate) which her body can absorb.

Trying To Conceive? See Your Doctor!

If you're trying to conceive and are concerned about developmental disabilities and congenital disorders that might be hereditary, see your doctor and make an appointment with a genetic counselor to determine the best course of action.

Medical Disclaimer: Articles are intended for informational purposes only and should not be used as the basis of patient treatment. Ask your medical professional if you have any health-related questions or concerns.