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An Overview of Developmental Disabilities For Teachers of Inclusive Classrooms

written by: Stephanie Torreno•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 1/10/2013

The term “developmental disabilities" describes a variety of physical and mental disorders and conditions. This article provides a general introduction and overview of these disabilities and how they differ from one another.

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    What is a Developmental Disability?

    Developmental disabilities are lifelong disabilities resulting from physical or intellectual impairments, or a combination of both. These disabilities present themselves before the age of 22 and impact daily functioning in three or more of the following areas:

    • ability to support oneself economically
    • ability to live independently
    • mobility
    • learning
    • receptive and expressive language
    • self-care
    • self-direction

    The disability can be severe, moderate, or mild, depending on an individual’s support needs. People with intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, or genetic disorders such as Down syndrome are said to have developmental disabilities.

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    Intellectual Disabilities

    Intellectual disabilities occur in childhood and are characterized by substantial limitations in cognitive functioning and adaptive skills. A person with an intellectual disability may have difficulties with functional academics, communication, conceptual skills, social skills, community use, health and safety, leisure, and work.

    Intervention includes supports and specific strategies to promote the development, education, interests, and well-being of the child or adult. Individualized supports can improve daily functioning, promote self-determination, and strengthen inclusion into society.

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    Cerebral Palsy

    Cerebral palsy (CP) is a chronic condition that affects movement and muscle coordination. It is caused by brain damage that occurs before, during, shortly after birth, or during infancy. CP does not get worse over time. Secondary conditions such as muscle spasticity (tightness), however, can develop and improve, get worse, or remain constant.

    Children with CP may also have seizures, abnormal speech, hearing and visual impairments, and intellectual disabilities, though most people with CP have normal intelligence. Depending on the severity of CP, children with the condition may not be able to walk, talk, eat, or play in typical ways.

    Read these inclusive teaching strategies designed for mainstreaming students with CP into your classroom.

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    Autism Spectrum Disorders

    Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. ASDs are "spectrum disorders," meaning that they affect each person in different ways, and can range from very mild to severe.

    You may see students diagnosed as having Asperger's Syndrome or as PDD-NOS. In the planned edition of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), all the various classifications used to describe this disorder will be collapsed into one category. According to an American Psychiatric Association (APA) statement released in early December, 2012, the new autisim criteria "will incorporate several diagnoses from DSM-IV including autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder (not otherwise specified) into the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder for DSM-5 to help more accurately and consistently diagnose children with autism."

    Children diagnosed with autism will display widely varying strengths and weakness. Nearly all will have social challenges, and some children may have significant language delays. Many students may display unusual behaviors (rocking, flapping of hands) and have very singular interests. Many people with autistim have an intellectual disability as well. Individuals that were classified as having Asperger's syndrome in the DSM-IV are generally higher functioning intellectually, but have social challenges as well as unusual behaviors and interests.

    The important thing to remember is that autism is truly a spectrum disorder, encompassing a wide range of strengths, weaknesses and impairments.

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    Down Syndrome

    Down syndrome occurs when a person has three, not two, copies of the 21st chromosome. This chromosomal abnormality changes the course of development and causes mild to severe cognitive delays. Speech and language may also be delayed. Physical characteristics of Down syndrome can include poor muscle tone, small stature, heart problems, upward slanting eyes, and flat facial features. Children with Down syndrome are often treated with educational and behavioral interventions, speech and language interventions, and occupational therapy.

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    The disorders described in this article represent only a few of the types of developmental disabilities that can impact children in your classroom. Whatever developmental disability an individual may have, early intervention is the key to the best possible outcome. Physical, occupational, and speech therapy, behavior modification, and other treatments tailored to the individual offer the best opportunity for these students to mainstream into the regular education classroom.