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What Is a Developmental Delay in Children? - Definition, Causes & Symptoms

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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Developmental delay is a condition in which a child is not able to achieve certain developmental skills within the normal age range. Learn about the definition, types, symptoms, and causes of developmental delay in children. Updated: 08/31/2021

Developmental Delay

There is lots of variation around what age a child should learn specific developmental skills, such as walking or talking. Most children develop these skills during the normal time period without any issues. However, some children don't attain these skills at the appropriate age. For example, some children learn how to walk well after their second birthday. When this happens, it may be a sign of developmental delay. The term developmental delay refers to when a child does not achieve developmental milestones within the normal age range. Simply put, it is a delay in a child's development.

Having a developmental delay is not the same thing as having a developmental disability, though it is possible for a developmental delay to develop into a developmental disability if left untreated. Furthermore, a developmental disability is a long-term issue, while a developmental delay may improve with intervention and can disappear altogether once the child catches-up in his or her development.

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  • 0:02 Developmental Delay
  • 1:03 Types and Symptoms
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Types of Developmental Delays and Symptoms

There are four main types of developmental delays in children. The symptoms depend on the type of developmental delay that is present. A child may experience developmental delays in one or more of the following areas:

Language or speech delays: This includes the ability to communicate with other people effectively, express and receive information such as instructions on how to complete an assignment, and to form sentences. Symptoms of speech and language delays include:

  • At age 2 or older, a child cannot use spoken language to express anything other than immediate needs
  • At age 4 or older, a child whose spoken language is hard to understand
  • At age 1, a child who does not use gestures such as waving or pointing
  • Difficulty imitating sounds at 18 months of age

Motor delays: This includes the ability to balance, walk, and use your hands and fingers, and hand-eye coordination. Symptoms of motor delays include:

  • Trouble putting puzzles or toys together
  • Inability to walk, sit, stand, or crawl at the appropriate age
  • Extreme reactions to pain, being touched, or textures

Social and emotional delays: This includes the ability to have meaningful relationships with others, interact with others, and be able to pick up on social cues. Symptoms of social and emotional delays include:

  • Displaying play skills that are inappropriate for the child's age; for example, a 10-year-old who kicks other children when he wants to play a different game
  • Having trouble reading social cues, such as a 7-year-old who becomes physically aggressive whenever another child approaches her from behind, because she views it as a threat
  • Trouble regulating emotions, or becoming easily upset

Cognitive delays: This category includes thinking skills, learning, reasoning, and memory. Symptoms of cognitive delays include:

  • A child over age 2 who is unable to follow simple instructions
  • A child over age 2 who is not able to imitate actions or speech
  • A child over age 1 who does not search for objects that are hidden as the child watches

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