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Developmental Cognitive Delay in Children: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Definition of Cognitive Delay
  • 1:01 Development Milestones
  • 2:08 Who Is Affected by…
  • 3:53 Diagnosis of Cognitive Delays
  • 4:33 Treatment of Cognitive Delays
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew works as an adjunct instructor and has a master's degree in educational psychology.

Not all children develop equally. In this lesson you'll find a discussion of how cognitive developmental delay is diagnosed and treated as well as an overview of a few of the risk factors. A short quiz follows.

Definition of Cognitive Delay

As a child brain develops there are an astounding amount of things they learn, from basic abilities like recognizing one's parents to the complex tasks involved in language, mathematics, and imaginative play. Unfortunately, for approximately eight percent of children, this development is impaired and they can be considered to have a cognitive developmental delay.

Cognitive developmental delay is broadly defined as a significant lag in a child's cognitive development when compared to standardized milestones. It is important to understand cognition, which is the process of acquiring and understanding knowledge through our thoughts, experiences, and senses. Putting the two together, we can say that if a child lags in their ability to acquire and understand knowledge gained through their thoughts, experiences, and senses, they are cognitively delayed.

Developmental Milestones

In order for a child to suffer from delay we have to establish a standard against which to compare their development. This standard comes in the form of developmental milestones, or a time frame of development during which one can expect a normally developing child to gain certain abilities.

As an example, let's use a six-month-old child. A normally developed child of this age should be able to understand their name when spoken to them. They won't be able to speak, read, or write their name, but they should acknowledge it in some manner (for example, turning towards the speaker or waving of their arms in excitement). Now, just because a child of this age doesn't do this the second they turn six months old does not mean their parents should be concerned. For every developmental milestone there is some wiggle room, so a child may develop this ability at four months or they may take as long as eight months. However, if a child is one year old and still not recognizing their name, this is a strong sign they are undergoing cognitive delay.

Who Is Affected by Cognitive Delays?

Cognitive developmental delays can affect any child, but there are some tell-tale risk factors. Gender is a great concern, with a significantly higher proportion of males being affected than females. For instance, autism affects four times the number of men than women. Some of this can be explained by many genetic conditions being carried by the X chromosome. Females have two X chromosomes and males have one X and one Y. With only a single X chromosome, the likelihood that an abnormality will be present is greater with males because in the case of females the second X chromosome can compensate.

The background of the mother can also significantly affect the chances of a child being born with a developmental delay. Mothers under the age of 18, mothers with fewer years of education, and unmarried mothers all have a higher chance of giving birth to a child who will be cognitively delayed. If the mother uses tobacco or alcohol while pregnant she puts her child at risk of delay, as well as if it doesn't have proper prenatal care early in her pregnancy.

There are also risk factors for the child. Premature and underweight babies are prone to developmental cognitive delays, and so are those who suffer from a medical condition in utero. Multiple births, like twins and triplets, also have a higher risk of delay, as does any child born with a genetic abnormality, like Down syndrome or fragile X syndrome.

It is important to note these are simply risk factors. A mother or child can have all of these risk factors and the child may develop completely normally.

Diagnosis of Cognitive Delays

Since cognitive developmental delay is such a broad term, there is no single test that will catch all cases. However, it is advised that parents who think their child isn't developing at a normal rate seek out an evaluation from an expert. During the evaluation, an expert will test the child on a number of factors, such as the child's ability to communicate, their social talents, their emotional coping skills, and their ability to identify and solve puzzles. The expert will also likely conduct an interview with the parents, review the child's medical history, and probably give the child a standardized test.

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