Neurocognitive and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental Disorders

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The neurodevelopmental disorders are a group of conditions with onset in the developmental period. The disorders typically manifest early in development, often before the child enters grade school, and are characterized by developmental deficits that produce impairments of personal, social, academic, or occupational functioning. The range of developmental deficits varies from very specific limitations of learning or control of executive functions to global impairments of social skills or intelligence. The neurodevelopmental disorders frequently co-occur; for example, individuals with autism spectrum disorder often have intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder), and many children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have a specific learning disorder. For some disorders, the clinical presentation includes symptoms of excess as well as deficits and delays in achieving expected milestones. For example, autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed only when the characteristic deficits of social communication are accompanied by excessively repetitive behaviors, restricted interests, and insistence on sameness.

Intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) is characterized by deficits in general mental abilities, such as reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, judgment, academic learning, and learning from experience. The deficits result in impairments of adaptive functioning, such that the individual fails to meet standards of personal independence and social responsibility in one or more aspects of daily life, including communication, social participation, academic or occupational functioning, and personal independence at home or in community settings. Global developmental delay, as its name implies, is diagnosed when an individual fails to meet expected developmental milestones in several areas of intellectual functioning. The diagnosis is used for individuals who are unable to undergo systematic assessments of intellectual functioning, including children who are too young to participate in standardized testing. Intellectual disability may result from an acquired insult during the developmental period from, for example, a severe head injury, in which case a neurocognitive disorder also may be diagnosed.

The communication disorders include language disorder, speech sound disorder, social (pragmatic) communication disorder, and childhood-onset fluency disorder (stuttering). The first three disorders are characterized by deficits in the development and use of language, speech, and social communication, respectively. Childhood-onset fluency disorder is characterized by disturbances of the normal fluency and motor production of speech, including repetitive sounds or syllables, prolongation of consonants or vowel sounds, broken words, blocking, or words produced with an excess of physical tension. Like other neurodevelopmental disorders, communication disorders begin early in life and may produce lifelong functional impairments.

Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, including deficits in social reciprocity, nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, and skills in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships. In addition to the social communication deficits, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder requires the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Because symptoms change with development and may be masked by compensatory mechanisms, the diagnostic criteria may be met based on historical information, although the current presentation must cause significant impairment.

Within the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, individual clinical characteristics are noted through the use of specifiers (with or without accompanying intellectual impairment; with or without accompanying structural language impairment; associated with a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor; associated with another neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder), as well as specifiers that describe the autistic symptoms (age at first concern; with or without loss of established skills; severity). These specifiers provide clinicians with an opportunity to individualize the diagnosis and communicate a richer clinical description of the affected individuals. For example, many individuals previously diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder would now receive a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder without language or intellectual impairment.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder defined by impairing levels of inattention, disorganization, and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. Inattention and disorganization entail inability to stay on task, seeming not to listen, and losing materials, at levels that are inconsistent with age or developmental level. Hyperactivity-impulsivity entails overactivity, fidgeting, inability to stay seated, intruding into other people’s activities, and inability to wait—symptoms that are excessive for age or developmental level. In childhood, ADHD frequently overlaps with disorders that are often considered to be “externalizing disorders,” such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. ADHD often persists into adulthood, with resultant impairments of social, academic and occupational functioning.

The neurodevelopmental motor disorders include developmental coordination disorder, stereotypic movement disorder, and tic disorders. Developmental coordination disorder is characterized by deficits in the acquisition and execution of coordinated motor skills and is manifested by clumsiness and slowness or inaccuracy of performance of motor skills that cause interference with activities of daily living. Stereotypic movement disorder is diagnosed when an individual has repetitive, seemingly driven, and apparently purposeless motor behaviors, such as hand flapping, body rocking, head banging, self-biting, or hitting. The movements interfere with social, academic, or other activities. If the behaviors cause self-injury, this should be specified as part of the diagnostic description. Tic disorders are characterized by the presence of motor or vocal tics, which are sudden, rapid, recurrent, nonrhythmic, stereotyped motor movements or vocalizations. The duration, presumed etiology, and clinical presentation define the specific tic disorder that is diagnosed: Tourette’s disorder, persistent (chronic) motor or vocal tic disorder, provisional tic disorder, other specified tic disorder, and unspecified tic disorder. Tourette’s disorder is diagnosed when the individual has multiple motor and vocal tics that have been present for at least 1 year and that have a waxing-waning symptom course.

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