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Monday, March 7, 2016

National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month is March: Do you understand developmental disabilities?

There is something very promising about March. We start to feel the early anticipation of spring while still constantly being reminded that it is winter. My friend and I started walking in the mornings again, for example, but we both know that any day a snowstorm could brew that would have us running back home for the safety of our treadmills. The uncertainty and hope that are both present in March are both good reasons that it was named National Developmental Disabilities Awareness month by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.

article by Monica Villar, Their Voice | Mar 3, 2016The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines developmental disorders as "a group of conditions due to impairment in physical, learning, language or behavior." Although in many cases specific causes are still unknown, a number of developmental disorders are thought to be due to factors that include genetics, parental health and behaviors (smoking and drinking) during pregnancy, complications during birth, infections during pregnancy, early infections in the baby and exposure to high levels of environmental toxins such as lead to mother and/or child.

One criteria used when determining an individual's developmental disability comes from a section of the federal definition “… the disability results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity: self-care, receptive and expressive language, learning, mobility, self-direction, capacity for independent living and economic self-sufficiency.”

Intellectual disabilities
With these factors in mind, let’s review the most common conditions that fall under the heading of “developmental disability” starting with “intellectual disability.” Though this condition was previously referred to as “mental retardation,” the more acceptable term is intellectual disability. This refers to limits in a person’s ability to learn at expected levels and function in daily life. Intellectual disabilities are typically diagnosed in categories including mild, moderate or severe. Those with intellectual disabilities learn more slowly, don’t always remember things they have learned, struggle applying what they have learned to new situations and usually think about life in a more concrete way. However, they will continue to learn and develop through their lives.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can create social, communication and behavioral challenges. Although there is a lot of variance in individuals with autism, some commonalities are avoidance or indifference to others, difficulty relating to others, monotonous and repetitive behavior such as rocking back and forth. People with autism are usually sensitive to sensory stimulation and, therefore, can be overwhelmed by ordinary sights, smells, sounds and touches.

Cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy refers to a group of disorders that affect the individual’s ability to move and maintain balance and poster and is the most common motor disability that occurs in childhood. Cerebral palsy is caused by abnormal brain development or damage occurring to the developing brain resulting in the inability to control muscle movement. Individuals with severe cerebral palsy may require assistance in walking or may not be able to walk at all. Those with mild cerebral palsy walk awkwardly but may not need any assistance. In addition to the mobility challenges, some individuals with cerebral palsy may also experience intellectual disability, seizures, or problems with speech, hearing or vision.

Down syndrome
Down syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21, results when extra genetic material causes delays in both mental and physical development. More specifically, during conception genetic information is inherited from both parents in the form of 46 chromosomes equally divided between the mother and father. With Down syndrome, the child gets an extra chromosome 21, which results in a total of 47 instead of 46. The physical features and medical conditions that come with Down syndrome vary between individuals and most health problems can be treated. This means that most people with Down syndrome can lead very healthy and productive lives. We have had the privilege of highlighting some of these individuals in previous articles.

Spina bifida
Spina bifida, which literally means “cleft spine,” is the incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord and/or the protective covering around them. The complications associated with spina bifida vary from minor physical problems with minimal impairment to severe physical and mental disabilities. The impact of the disability will be determined by the size and location of the malformation, if it is covered and what spinal nerves are involved.

Although not everyone is in agreement, the CDC also lists ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) as a developmental disability. Individuals with ADHD have trouble paying attention, and being overly or hyperactive. ADHD cannot be cured but can be managed and symptoms may improve as the child ages.

My experience in this field is that we can only truly grow as a strong community when we take the time to get to know each other. I hope that this will be our first step together to fulfill the spirit of this month “… to highlight the many ways in which people with and without developmental disabilities come together to form, strong diverse communities.”

For more information, visit www.arcjc.org.
Monica Villar works for RISE Services in Orem, a nonprofit specializing in supporting those with developmental disabilities.

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