Possible Causes

There are a multitude of etiologies for developmental disabilities. The cause can be prenatal, perinatal, or postnatal. Risk factors for developmental disabilities can be biological, environmental, or a combination of both. Genetics plays a role in conditions such as Tay-Sachs disease and other inborn errors of metabolism, Klinefelter's syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and Down syndrome, that typically lead to developmental disability. Genetic causes may be chromosomal abnormalities, single gene defects, or multifactorial disorders. For example, autism appears to have a genetic component that interacts with developmental factors.

A number of conditions in the prenatal environment may increase the likelihood that a child will be born with the potential for a developmental disability. Fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, is completely preventable if pregnant women do not drink alcohol. Women who have sufficient amounts of folic acid in their diets reduce the risk of having a child with a neural tube defect that can result in a developmental disability.

Smoking during pregnancy, use of certain drugs such as cocaine or heroin, poor maternal nutrition, and extremes of maternal age greatly increase the chances of fetal brain damage or premature delivery and low birth weight. Babies with low birth weights are three times more likely than normal-weight babies to have developmental disabilities. Approximately 61 percent of premature infants have a developmental disability of some kind.

Children may later be at risk through environmental causes such as lead poisoning, inadequate nutrition, infections, nonstimulating environments, abuse, neglect, and traumatic brain injury.

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