What is a Developmental Delay?


This March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, and KenCrest’s Early Intervention services have helped families for over 100 years.

By Sydney Kerelo

Today, more and more children are being diagnosed with developmental delays, ranging from being on the autism spectrum to having learning delays. In 1987, President Reagan first recognized March as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month to increase public awareness of the needs many Americans with developmental disabilities face. In 2023, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro also proclaimed March Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year nearly 1 in 11 kids are diagnosed with autism, an intellectual disability, or a developmental delay. A recent report by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics states that between 2019 and 2021, developmental disabilities grew from 7.4 percent to 8.56 percent among children 3 to 17, with boys ranging higher than girls.

But what exactly is a Developmental Delay?

According to the National Library of Medicine, it’s a diagnosis for children who are slow to reach one or more developmental milestones, like rolling over, standing up, or walking, compared to their peers.

Types of Developmental Delays


A child supported by KenCrest enjoying a day at the playground. // Photo by Aubrey Hoffert

According to the Cleveland Clinic and NYU Langone Health, there are four types of developmental delays, including:

  • Cognitive Delay: This may affect a child’s intellectual functioning, causing problems communicating and playing with others and learning difficulties.
  • Motor Delays: With a developmental delay, a child may be unable to coordinate large muscle groups like the arms or legs and even smaller muscles like the hands. Infants with a gross motor delay can have difficulties rolling over or crawling. At the same time, an infant with an acceptable motor delay may be unable to hold small objects like toys properly and have trouble tying shoes or brushing their teeth.
  • Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Delays:All children process information differently, but a developmental delay can impact their ability to learn, communicate, and interact with others. They may have trouble understanding social cues, carrying a two-way conversation, or initiating communication.
  • Speech Delays: Children can have speech delays due to oral motor problems or physiological causes like brain damage, genetic syndromes, or hearing loss. There are two types of speech delays: receptive language disorders, where a child has difficulties understanding words or concepts, and expressive language disorders, where a child has a reduced vocabulary and tends not to understand complex sentences. Children with this disorder tend to be slow to babble, talk, and create sentences. When children have a speech delay, it’s typically a combination of the two main speech delays.

Symptoms of Developmental Delays

Children with developmental delay often miss developmental milestones like taking their first steps, smiling for the first time, or waving “bye-bye.” Parents need to observe their child’s behaviors from two months to five years old to see if their child has a delay so they can access the proper support and resources to help them thrive later in life.

A few common delays children experience when they have a developmental delay are not rolling over, sitting up, crawling, or walking; trouble with fine motor skills; problems understanding what others say; trouble with problem-solving; issues with social skills, problems talking or talking late; difficulty remembering things; and the inability to connect actions with consequences.

What Causes a Developmental Delay?

While some delays are caused by genetic factors like Down Syndrome or Fragile X Syndrome, a majority don’t have specific causes. According to Yale Medicine, “Prematurity, medical problems, lead poisoning, and trauma all have the potential to cause developmental delay, but sometimes the cause is unknown.”


An Early Intervention child playing at the playground. // Photo by Aubrey Hoffert

How Do You Know if Your Child Has a Developmental Delay and What Happens Next?

Suppose you suspect your child to have a developmental delay. In that case, your pediatrician will use screenings to track if your child is learning essential skills at the right time or if issues are occurring and they need extra evaluations or treatments. Conducting a screening early can allow your child to access the proper support and resources they need earlier so they can thrive later in life.

At first, the doctor will talk and play with the child, asking questions to gauge how they learn, speak, behave, or move. Depending on the doctor's concerns, the child may be referred to an early interventionist to get access to a hearing, speech, occupational, physical, or neurological therapist.

For more than 100 years, KenCrest’s Early Intervention (EI) program has helped children ages birth to five grow and develop to their fullest potential. At the same time, the Delaware EI program supports children aged birth to three through the State’s Health and Social Services department. All EI services are provided in the child’s home, child-care setting, or community, encouraging families to practice the strategies outside of EI.

Parents in Pennsylvania with questions or concerns about their child’s development may call the CONNECT Helpline at 1-800-692-7288 or visit the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website. Parents whose child qualifies for Early Intervention services can request KenCrest as their provider through their county.

Parents in Delaware with questions or concerns about their child’s development may call their respective county’s early intervention helpline, New Castle County at 302-283-7240 or 1-800-671-0050, and Kent/Sussex Counties at 302-424-7300 or 1-800-752-9393. Families can also visit the Delaware Health and Social Services website.