More Than a Disorder
Neurodevelopmental conditions encompass a whole group of disorders, all of which are characterized by abnormalities in the development of the nervous system. The results vary from disorder to disorder, and from case to case, which makes identifying key characteristics difficult.
Most neurodevelopmental disorders are only identified as a child ages, based on the rate at which they develop emotionally and mentally. While some children develop faster or slower than their peers, significant delays in development may suggest a neurodevelopmental disorder. For some neurodevelopmental conditions, the differences in development are specific enough that the disorder can go undiagnosed until late adolescence, or even adulthood.
The severity and nature of these disorders differs, but most of them continue to affect a person for the rest of their life. Some are more common than others, such as attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD). And some of these conditions can be overcome with age and are eventually outgrown.
Neurodevelopmental disorders can be difficult to identify, because while some have stronger characteristics and diagnostic signs than others, some often go completely unnoticed until adulthood. Not all neurodevelopmental disorders are fully identified nor researched, which means someteens can be diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder without a specific name or type.
A neurodevelopmental disorder diagnosis is far from the end of the world and does not necessarily limit your child’s cognitive potential.
While neurodevelopmental disorders are associated with social, cognitive, physical, or emotional deficits, treatments for these conditions have come a long way.
Types of Neurodevelopmental Disorders
There are many different types of neurodevelopmental disorders. Some of the most prevalent adolescent neurodevelopmental disorders include:
- Cerebral palsy: Cerebral palsy refers to a number of different neurodevelopmental disorders that primarily affect a child’s motor abilities, such as the ability to grab, walk, and maintain balance or posture. There are different factors that affect a child’s neurodevelopment which could result in palsy, and depending on the severity of the condition, a teen can learn to walk without aid, or require lifelong care. These conditions do not affect a teen cognitively but can co-occur with other neurodevelopmental disorders.
- Autism spectrum disorder: While different forms of autism were previously categorized and characterized as individual disorders, more recently the entirety of what is considered autism has been consolidated under a broad spectrum of conditions with certain characteristic symptoms and developmental signs. The primary characteristics of adolescent autism include problems with verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction, as well as repeated behaviors (such as “stimming”) and hyperspecific interests. Autism does not imply intellectual disability, although it can impact a teen’s ability to learn and study things that may not interest them.
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: ADHD is primarily characterized by problems with executive functioning and impulse control and is usually either strongly characterized by attention-deficit behavior, or hyperactivity. Teens with ADHD will struggle to formulate and stick to plans, maintain interest or attention, or may become incredibly concentrated on a single task for hours at a time. They may have a difficult time being consistent or developing new habits.
- Intellectualdisabilities: Intellectual disabilities are characterized by neurodevelopmental signs of cognitive difficulty, such as a low capacity for problem solving or memory, lower than normal attention span, and difficulty retaining or processing new information. Children and teens with an intellectual disability may take longer than their peers to develop crucial skills such as language, or struggle with adaptive functioning, such as independent living and hygiene. Like other neurodevelopmental disorders, there are a varying degrees of intellectual disability, and mild symptoms may imply that a teen learns more slowly than their peers, but is still capable of a long and independent life.
- Learningdisorders: Learning disorders greatly impact a teen’s ability to absorb and process information, and are independent from cognitive ability or potential. A teen with a learning disability may struggle to interpret and accurately convey information, despite having the same cognitive abilities and intelligence levels as their peers. One of the most common learning disabilities is dyslexia.
- Ticdisorder: A tic disorder is a group of neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by involuntary and unwanted physical and verbal movements or sounds, with a variety of causes and classifications. A commonly known tic disorder is Tourette syndrome. Certain emotional states and stressors, such as anxiety, can make tics worse.
What is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder, or just autism, is a neurodevelopmental condition that encompasses a wide variety of symptoms characterized by an inability to process social cues, difficulty with verbal cues, discomfort when making eye contact, difficulty emoting, and inability to meet certain developmental milestones as a toddler or young child. Autism spectrum disorder can be diagnosed fairly reliably in children as young as 18 months, and treatment can help them better cope with their condition.
As a neurodevelopmental disorder, autism cannot be completely treated or cured. Treatment plans are similar to behavioral training, and simply help children and teens better understand their peers and function in a neurotypical world, as well as teach them healthy ways to cope with frustrating symptoms or situations in life.
As a spectrum disorder, there are varying degrees of autism, as well as a variety of ways in which it may present itself. These different conditions were previously recognized as separate mental disorders, but because of the many “shades of gray” in between, autism is currently seen as a spectrum rather than multiple distinct conditions.
While autism is not curable, it is very much a condition that millions of people around the world can live fulfilling lives with. Children with autism may develop later than their peers in some ways, or may require assistance, but most can learn to function independently, and autism spectrum disorder itself is not an intellectual disability. Despite delayed cognitive, language, and motor skills, teens and adults with autism can be just as intelligent or above average when compared to their peers.
Autism has risen statistically since the turn of the century, especially as our understanding of the condition and our screening protocols improved considerably. Today, about 1 in 44 children, or roughly 2 percent of people, are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
How is Autism Recognized in Children?
As a neurodevelopmental disorder, autism is recognized by trained pediatric doctors and psychiatrists who specialize in child development. The majority of children hit certain milestones within similar age ranges, from the ability to crawl and walk to the ability to respond to one’s name, speak, and facially emote. Some children learn or develop much faster than their peers, while some develop more slowly. But a child with autism will have significant delays in their development, and may struggle to:
- Respond to their own name by 9 months
- Play simple interactive games by 12 months
- Learn to point at things of interest by 15 months
- Notice when others are hurt or need attention by 24 months
- Notice other children and join them in play by 36 months
- Play pretend or roleplay by 48 months
- And other milestones.
Dedicated and thorough assessments are made to determine if a child is on the spectrum. If they are, early diagnosis can help lead to a development plan to address a child’s lagging development, through a combination of behavioral therapies and physical therapy. For example, because some children with autism struggle with posture and motor skills, early physical therapy can help them improve their motor skills, physical strength, and coordination, which may help them learn to play with other children and develop at a quicker pace.
Other signs and symptoms of autism may include:
- Delayed language skills
- Motor skill issues
- Gastrointestinal issues (constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, frequent stomach pains
- Inappropriate reactions to information and senses
- Physical fidgeting
- Inability to cope with even minor changes
- Strict routines and habits
- No variation in play or hobbies
- Obsessive interests
- More likely to experience agitation and anxiety
- Higher likelihood of seizure disorders or epilepsy
- Higher likelihood of ADHD symptoms
- More likely to struggle with a learning disability like dyslexia
- And more.
Can Autism Be Treated?
While autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, it is also important to remember that the brain has a high level of plasticity, especially in children, and that treatment methods significantly improve over time. Early treatment can help a child or teen with autism have better chances at keeping up with their peers and reducing the severity of their symptoms over time.
The main treatment for autism spectrum disorder is applied behavioral analysis (ABA), although an individual’s treatment plan may differ depending on their specific symptoms and potential comorbid conditions, such as ADHD, depression, or anxiety disorders.
Applied behavioral analysis involves an intensive one-on-one process with a behavioral professional to work on integrating and learning new behaviors on a step-by-step basis. What comes intuitively to other children may need to be trained or learned by children with autism, allowing them to better understand, communicate, and engage with their peers.
The treatment process for autism spectrum disorder differs from teen to teen, as do their symptoms. But with support, patience, and understanding, any teen with autism can be helped to better function among their peers and society as a whole.
In addition to behavioral therapy, teens with autism may benefit from intensive physical therapy and therapeutic modalities that help them build better motor skills and coordination.
Some clinics and research studies have also seen great success in helping teens through animal-assisted therapy, such as equine therapy, to soothe related anxiety symptoms and help teens with autism develop their empathic skills, social interaction skills, and ability to engage and play with others.
Treating Neurodevelopmental Disorders
The Arrow House can be part of a comprehensive treatment plan for your teen, depending on the type of neurodevelopmental disorder they are diagnosed with. Our treatment modalities include one-on-one talk therapy, group therapy, family-specific therapy sessions, psychoeducation, equine and other animal-assisted therapy methods, and more. With a strong staff-to-client ratio and a residential inpatient treatment setting, we aim to help parents find the right treatment arrangements for their teen.
Addressing Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the Arrow House
At the Arrow House, our treatment for neurodevelopmental disorders depends on your teen’s specific condition. Some of these conditions are best treated with a combination of medication, positive habit building, and stress management techniques, such as ADHD.
Some conditions have no pharmacological treatment and require long-term family therapy to help create a sturdy support network around a teen’s needs and help them flourish and overcome the strongest of their symptoms as they grow into adulthood.
Our experiential modalities, recreational activities, and comprehensive treatment plans help teens feel welcome and at home as we incorporate them into the daily schedules and routines at the Arrow House and help them develop a healthy rhythm.
Intensive one-on-one therapy for conditions like autism spectrum disorder can help teens develop the tools they need to integrate themselves in day-to-day school life, improve their self-reliance, and build important life skills through physical activity, peer communication, and better hygiene. For teens with conditions like ADHD, prioritizing executive functioning in therapy while utilizing medication to minimize symptoms can help them at school and in everyday life.
Our day school program utilizes an accredited curriculum, but we understand and respect that every teen learns differently, and that there can be many unique challenges when tutoring teens with neurodevelopmental disorders. Our staff are trained to help teens with neurodevelopmental disorders better internalize the contents of their lessons and keep up with their peers through a specialized education program, while keeping parents updated with their teen’s academic progress.
At the Arrow House, we believe that intensive residential treatment is an important first step for teens with neurodevelopmental disorders, and our programs serve as an important foundation for continued treatment and support in years to come.