Cognitive Disability in Children vs. Adults

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson will review some of the major cognitive disabilities that can present themselves in children and adults. In addition to defining cognitive disabilities, the lesson will also differentiate between mild and severe cognitive disabilities.

Amy's Bike Ride

Twenty nine year old Amy thoroughly enjoys riding her bike. One day, on a routine ride, a car cuts her off and Amy is thrown from her bike, landing on the sidewalk. Her helmet flies off on impact, and a trauma helicopter airlifts her with life threatening injuries to the closest trauma center.

When relatives arrive, they are informed that Amy has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Although they expect her to recover, she may continue to suffer long-term consequences that could impact her daily life functioning.

In Amy's case, doctor's suspect she may develop a cognitive disability as a result of her traumatic brain injury. A cognitive disability is a disability that relates to the functioning and processing of the brain.

Mild Vs Severe

Cognitive disabilities can range from mild to debilitating depending upon the underlying condition that is creating them. Examples of mild forms include:

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • dyslexia
  • learning disabilities

Mild cognitive disabilities distinguish themselves from more serious ones in that the individual with the disability is still able to function normally in most other aspects of their lives. For example, a child with ADHD might be a handful at home or in school, but he or she can still feed themselves, dress themselves, and grow up to be a successful and well adjusted adult.

In contrast, severe cognitive disabilities are considered to be clinical disabilities that greatly impair functioning in one or more major life activities. Major life activities include things such as eating, seeing, hearing, dressing oneself, walking, standing, lifting, speaking, and so forth. Some examples of severe cognitive disabilities include:

  • Vision impairment
  • Hearing impairment
  • Epilepsy
  • Paralysis
  • Mental retardation

While the onset of some cognitive disabilities occurs at birth or during childhood, others can occur in adulthood.

Cognitive Disabilities in Children

Some cognitive disabilities are present at birth or become evident as a child grows and enters the educational system. These cognitive disabilities are also referred to as developmental disabilities, since they tend to progress and become more prominent as a child matures.

Cognitive disabilities are referred to as developmental when the age of onset is prior to 22 years. There are many causes including:

  • Premature birth
  • Autism
  • Down's syndrome
  • Nutrition problems
  • Infection during or after birth
  • Genetic causes
  • Maternal substance abuse during pregnancy (drugs, alcohol, or smoking)
  • Traumatic brain injury

While not all of these factors will result in cognitive disabilities, they increase the likelihood that a child will show signs of developmental impairment.

Cognitive Disabilities in Adults

When someone over the age of 22 develops a cognitive disability, the primary cause is typically not related to a birthing issue or developmental concern. The following are likely causes of cognitive disabilities that occur in adulthood:

  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Stroke
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Lou Gehrig's Disease
  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer's
  • Cancer
  • Drug abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Insect bites

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