Developmental disabilities are sometimes very misunderstood, but here’s what you need to know about them in order to be an effective supporter of loved ones with developmental disabilities. First, it’s important to understand the difference between developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. While both impair someone’s ability to function in society, the causes of developmental disabilities are mostly genetic or physical in nature; mental illnesses are caused by psychological factors that may include genetics but aren’t solely genetic.

Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Many people with a developmental disability, such as Down syndrome or autism, have what is called a neurodevelopmental disorder. These disorders cause abnormalities in brain structure that prevent certain parts of their brains from working properly. There are many different types of these disorders; some of them may seem similar but are actually quite different. Many are mild to moderate, but some can lead to severe complications and even death. They tend to affect people at all stages of life, although it’s most common in children under 6 years old.

Intellectual Disability

This includes people with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, Prader-Willi syndrome, specific learning disabilities and similar conditions. Intellectual disability is a general term used to describe significant limitations in intellectual functioning along with deficits in adaptive behavior that began before age 18.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is a developmental disability that can range from mild to severe. It can cause significant communication, socialization, sensory, and behavioral challenges in a person’s life. Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to show signs at an early age, but how severe those symptoms are can vary greatly. The most effective form of treatment is to be supported by family members and professionals alike, who will help navigate symptoms as they arise throughout life.

Speech Delay/Loss

It’s common to notice that your toddler isn’t talking yet, but don’t panic! This is a natural part of development. Speech typically begins between 9-15 months. Watch for hints that your toddler might be ready to start communicating—he or she may point, nod or respond with gestures when you call their name. Keep in mind that most kids develop language skills at their own pace. If you have concerns about your child, talk to your pediatrician.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD)

It is characterized by delayed development in many areas of function, including socialization, communication, play, and language. PDD can be diagnosed from infancy or childhood to adulthood.

Cerebral Palsy

More than two million Americans are living with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that impairs movement. Common causes of CP include lack of oxygen at birth, brain infections, head trauma and stroke. In some cases, CP is present from birth. Some people live with symptoms that fluctuate throughout their lifetime; others experience symptoms that don’t change over time. While there’s no cure for CP—treatment focuses on rehabilitation to improve physical functioning—many people with CP lead independent lives.

Down Syndrome

Today, individuals with Down syndrome are living fuller, richer lives than ever before. While life for someone with Down syndrome can be different from those without, it does not have to be difficult. Individuals with Down syndrome can live happy, healthy lives when provided proper care and encouragement. The disability itself is not as disabling as what society has traditionally done to limit people like these!

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

It’s often called a silent epidemic, but when you have a brain injury, that doesn’t mean you can keep it silent. When we get a concussion or any other sort of TBI, it takes more than an aspirin to fix what’s wrong with us. What happens during TBI? Do I need rehab? Am I eligible for disability? How do I live with these physical and mental challenges after my brain is injured?