Developmental Disabilities

Type of psychology: Developmental psychology Fields of study: Childhood and adolescent disorders; cognitive development; infancy and childhood; organic disorders

Developmental disabilities are conditions that result in substantial functional limitations. They manifest themselves in childhood and persist throughout the life span, requiring a continuum of medical, educational, and social services.

Key concepts

• activities of daily living (ADLs)

• individual education plan (IEP)

• individual family service plan (IFSP)

• medically fragile

• mental retardation

• pervasive developmental disorder (PDD)

The concept of developmental disabilities was first introduced in the Developmental Disabilities Services and Facilities Construction Act of 1970. Subsequently, the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1990 defined developmental disabilities. The term "developmental disability" means a severe, chronic disability of a person five years of age or older that is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or a combination of both. The disability must manifest itself before the person reaches the age of twenty-two and be expected to continue indefinitely. It results in substantial functional limitations in three or more areas of major life activity, including self-care, receptive and expressive language, learning, mobility, self-direction, capacity for independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. The inclusion of the requirement of substantial functional limitations in three or more major life areas forms the basis for provision of services to individuals with severe impairments.

The American Psychiatric Association does not use the term "developmental disabilities." However, it does identify pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) in its diagnostic manual. The description of these disorders and their manifestations in many ways overlaps the definition of developmental disabilities.

The terms "developmental disabilities" and "mental retardation" are often used as if they were synonymous. However, there are important distinctions as well as areas of overlap. The President's Committee on Mental Retardation uses the definition developed and used by the American Association on Mental Retardation and generally understood by the Arc-USA (a national organization for people with mental retardation and related developmental disabilities and their families). Developmental disabilities include more disabilities than those encompassed under mental retardation.

Developmental disabilities comprise severe and chronic disabilities, while mental retardation includes a large number of individuals functioning at the mild level of cognitive impairment who require little or no support in adulthood. However, mental retardation does account for 70 percent of the people who are developmentally disabled. The term "medically fragile" is sometimes used to describe those vulnerable individuals whose complex medical needs can seriously compromise their health status.

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