Father smiling at his daughter with developmental disability.

3 Ways to Support People With Developmental Disabilities

Millions of children and adults in the United States live with a developmental disability. For individuals affected by this group of conditions (which includes autism, Down syndrome, and language or speech disorders), it can be all too easy to feel lonely or socially isolated. The best thing you can do to help is listen to their needs and help create an inclusive environment.

In recognition of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, here are some additional tips to help create a community where everyone can succeed.

What are developmental disabilities?

A developmental disability is a condition that affects learning, language, or behavior. These conditions happen when part of the brain does not develop correctly. Usually, these conditions show up in early childhood and last for the rest of the person’s life.

According to statistics from the CDC, 17% of children ages 3-17 have at least one developmental disability.

There are several different types of developmental disabilities. Some specific examples of developmental disabilities include:

  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Intellectual disability
  • Down syndrome
  • Language or speech disorders
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Learning disorders (for example, dyslexia)

People with conditions like these might make body movements that seem strange; seem uninterested in other people; or exhibit strong, unusual reactions to noises, textures, or new things.

How developmental disabilities can affect people

It’s important to remember that just like we all have unique personalities, bodies, and experiences, people with developmental disabilities are different and unique, too. Disability can affect people in many ways and to varying extents. No two people with a developmental disability are exactly alike — even if they share the same diagnosis.

Some people with a developmental disability might be able to live independently. They may be able to safely drive; regularly engage in satisfying relationships; and work a job.

Others might need extra assistance from the people in their life. Maybe they cannot live alone or are unable to work a job.

While everyone with a developmental disability is different, issues in areas like problem-solving, understanding language, or regulating emotions can make it challenging to participate in society like able-bodied people do. These symptoms impact an individual’s daily functioning in ways that we cannot understand if we haven’t experienced them ourselves.

The bottom line is that developmental disabilities can affect people in a large variety of ways. If you have met one person with a disability, you’ve met one person with a disability! Getting to know them on a personal, individual level — just like you would with any new friend or colleague — will help you understand how their disability affects their life.

Regardless of disability, everybody can still make a positive and meaningful contribution to society.

3 ways to support people with developmental disabilities

Chances are, you know someone with a disability, whether you realize it or not! One out of every 45 adults in the United States has autism, for example, and over 366 million adults worldwide have ADHD. As you go about your daily life, keep your eyes open for people who might need a different kind of support than others. Here are a few ideas to help.

  1. Listen to their needs

First and foremost, your job is to listen. Remember, everybody is different, and everybody has different needs. If you’re still getting to know somebody, it won’t be helpful for you to come into the room with a plan of how things are going to go. Instead, let the person communicate to you what they need or prefer and how you can best support them.

  1. Create an inclusive environment

Next, consider the environment around you. For many people with developmental disabilities, it can be difficult to handle elements such as bright lights, loud noises, or big groups of people. Do what you can to minimize these challenges. You might consider creating a “quiet room” that’s open to anyone who needs to take a break, or rearranging schedules so that workplace meetings are held in more intimate groups.

  1. Be sensitive

Be conscious of the language you use, the jokes you make, and the ways you act. It’s all too easy to say something that’s an insult to people with disabilities — and while that likely wasn’t your intention, you never know who’s listening.

For example, many words that are commonly used in our vernacular are actually ableist slurs. Words like “retard,” “cripple,” or “spaz” devalue people with disabilities because they imply that these people are somehow inferior, which is not true.

Be conscious of the way you talk about disability. A few small changes can make a big impact in helping you become a better ally.

Learn more about developmental disabilities

For more information about developmental disabilities, we recommend the following organizations and resources:

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