Causes Of Developmental Disability

There are many social, environmental and physical causes of developmental disabilities, although for some a definitive cause may never be determined. Common factors causing developmental disabilities include:

  • Brain injury or infection before, during or after birth.
  • Growth or nutrition problems.
  • Abnormalities of chromosomes and genes.
  • Birth long before the expected birth date – also called extreme prematurity.
  • Poor diet and health care.
  • Drug misuse during pregnancy, including alcohol intake and smoking.
  • Child abuse, which can severely affect a child’s socio-emotional development.
  • An autism spectrum disorder.

Developmental disabilities affect between 1 and 2% of the population in most western countries, although many government sources acknowledge that statistics are flawed in this area. The worldwide proportion of people with developmental disabilities is believed to be approximately 1.4%. It is twice as common in males as in females, and some researchers have found that the prevalence of mild developmental disabilities is likely to be higher in areas of poverty and deprivation, and among people of certain ethnicities.

Associated issues

Physical health issues

There are many physical health factors associated with developmental disabilities. For some specific syndromes and diagnoses, these are inherent (such as poor heart function in people with Down syndrome); however lack of access to health services and lack of understanding by medical professionals is also a major contributing factor. People with severe communication difficulties find it difficult to articulate their health needs, and without adequate support and education might not recognise ill health. Epilepsy, sensory problems (such as poor vision and hearing), obesity and poor dental health are over-represented in this population. Life expectancy among people with developmental disabilities as a group is estimated at 20 years below average, although this is improving with advancements in adaptive and medical technologies, and as people are leading healthier, more fulfilling lives, and some specific diagnoses (such as Freeman-Sheldon syndrome) do not impact on life expectancy.

Mental health issues (dual diagnoses)

Mental health issues, and psychiatric illnesses, are more likely to occur in people with developmental disabilities than in the general population. A number of factors are attributed to the high incidence rate of dual diagnoses:

  • the high likelihood of encountering traumatic events throughout their lifetime (such as abandonment by loved ones, abuse, bullying and harassment)
  • the social restrictions placed upon people with developmental disabilities (such as lack of education, poverty, limited employment opportunities, limited opportunities for fulfilling relationships, boredom)
  • biological factors (such as brain injury, epilepsy, illicit and prescribed drug and alcohol misuse)
  • developmental factors (such as lack of understanding of social norms and appropriate behaviour, inability of those around to allow/ understand expressions of grief and other human emotions)
  • External monitoring factor: all people with developmental disabilities that are in a Federal or State funded residence require the residence to have some form of behavioral monitoring for each person with developmental disability at the residence. With this information psychological diagnosis are more easily given than with the general population that has less consistent monitoring.
  • Access to health care providers: in the USA, all people with developmental disabilities that are in a Federal or State funded residence require the residence to have annual visits to various health care providers (nurse, physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc.) With consistent visits to health care providers more people with developmental disabilities are likely to receive appropriate treatment than the general population that is not required to visit various health care providers.

These problems are exacerbated by difficulties in diagnosis of mental health issues, and in appropriate treatment and medication, as for physical health issues.


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