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Developmental disabilities are not mental illness

The CDC classes the following conditions under developmental disabilities:

The CDC determined one in six kids (17%) have developmental disabilities, but this staggering percentage does not mean these conditions are widely understood. For example a common misconception about “bad” parenting causing developmental disabilities is false. Genetics play a role and so do a long list of other complex factors. Further, developmental disabilities are not mental illness.

Perhaps one reason developmental disabilities are wrongly categorized as mental illness is because of their definition. Developmental disabilities “impact a child’s ability to acquire academic, social, communication, and executive functioning skills.” People may associate those symptoms with mental illness like social anxiety, selective mutism disorder, or personality traits like shyness.

Developmental disabilities, however, result from differences in how the brain develops and/or how nerve cells communicate. Unlike mental illness, developmental disabilities emerge at birth or early childhood, and typically require lifelong support because they disrupt a child’s ability to learn or conceptualize certain subjects, and are often treated with medications and behavioral therapy.

So no, we aren’t all “a little autistic,” or “kind of ADHD” when we’re feeling temporarily restless or other symptoms.

Contrastingly, mental illness may impact a persons’ mood, emotion, social, and energy levels at any point in their lives. The developmental disability/mental illness mix-up may be further exacerbated because both are classed as “disabilities” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The key difference is mental illnesses are treated to cure, and developmental disabilities are treated to endure. Just because developmental disabilities have no prognosis for remission doesn’t mean those who experience them can’t live a full and healthy life exactly as they are.

Long term wellbeing for both developmental disabilities and mental illnesses are largely dependent on sociodemographics. Wealthy non-Hispanic white kids typically have greater access to healthcare and medication than other groups, especially the underinsured. That also indicates statistics may largely undercount these underrepresented populations who are less likely to receive care.

Another long term wellbeing factor is that people with developmental disabilities disproportionately experience rates of co-occurring disorders 39% higher than other groups. ADHD (65%), oppositional defiant disorder (22%), anxiety disorders (18%), were the most common comorbidities.

Comorbidities may vary based on the specific developmental disability.

It’s not surprising that kids who struggle to learn social cues or academic milestones develop higher rates of anxiety, depression, and self esteem difficulties. Their differences make them vulnerable targets for social ostracism and bullying by “neurotypicals” or people who don’t experience invisible disabilities.

In the next couple of articles we’ll get into how these differences and misconceptions cause neurodiverse people to “mask” in public to hide behaviors and mannerisms that may cause unwanted attention, specific masking techniques used by women, and prescription medication abuse on college and high school campuses. For now I just wanted to set some definitions and stats.


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