Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD)

What is Developmental Coordination Disorder?

Developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a rare childhood affliction affecting less than 200,000 children a year. It is most prevalent in children aged 6-13. It follows children into adulthood and can not be cured but is responsive to treatment. A medical exam is required for diagnosis.

This disorder can occur by itself or be accompanied by other common childhood disorders. Common disorders that DCD can combine with are attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. DCD is more prevalent in boys, occurring in a 2:1 ratio, as opposed to girls where the ratio is 5:1.

Although there is no medical or neurological link or explanation for this disorder there are distinguishing characteristics that point to DCD.

This disorder is identified by a delay in the development of normal age appropriate physical activities. A child who suffers from developmental coordination disorder will usually be clumsy, uncoordinated in movement, and unable to perform day to day tasks well. There is usually a developmental delay in motor skills as well. However, each child with DCD will experience his or her own unique symptoms. Some children may struggle with all physical tasks and movement in general, while others may have problems in a few areas.

There are other conditions that also tend to be present in combination with DCD. These conditions include language delays, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Unfortunately, DCD is not a childhood malady that children outgrow. It usually follows them into adulthood. Although there is no cure for this disease, the symptoms can be managed and improved with various treatments and therapies.

Children with this dysfunction often struggle with fear and anxiety. These fears and anxieties are often labeled as behavioral inhibition or BI. Behavioral inhibition affects a child’s ability to learn new skills, pay attention, and their overall behavior. Characteristic behaviors include poor attention and emotional self-regulation, tantrums, avoidance, social and separation anxiety, and intolerance of failure, to list a few. Hypermobility can make BI more pronounced, due to the generalized lack of control over limbs and movement. Anxiety disorder can surface as well.

It’s important to understand that DCD is a complication that affects a child’s ability to process sensory information. This is the chief reason for the clumsiness and lack of coordination. This means that it is difficult for a child to determine how to approach or accomplish a physical activity. Stairs require thought because the child is not sure if he or she should lift his or her leg to mount the stair or simply walk.

The brain has difficulty processing the steps necessary to walk, jump, or pick something up. This hesitancy is prevalent when it comes to reacting to physical activities as well. For example, during a team sport, if a ball is thrown to a child with DCD the child may not know how to respond in time to catch it. The inability to easily accomplish physical activities is often very stressful for children with DCD. They suffer from anxiety, fear, and a resistance to new activities and challenges.

Developmental Coordination Disorder Symptoms

This disease is characterized by delays in sitting and walking.

A child may also experience flaccid or weak muscles when jumping or difficulty with physical tasks that require coordination, like tying shoe laces. They may also drool or have speech impairments as well as trouble drawing and trying to build things. The problems associated with this disorder are both muscular and developmental. This dysfunction is diagnosed by a medical professional who observes a child’s inability to learn or execute age appropriate motor skills.

These symptoms often show up during the early developmental period and are characterized by a struggle with daily living tasks as well as difficulties that interfere with school activities and productivity. One key distinguishing fact about DCD is that problems with motor skills can not be explained by any intellectual delay, visual impairment or any other neurological condition that would have anything to do with movement. The diagnosis for DCD examines a variety of different areas of mobility using The Movement Assessment Battery for Children (MABC). This test was developed specifically for the diagnosis of DCD. Physiotherapists are often a resource for diagnosing DCD and referring children to medical professionals can be helpful with their treatment. As with any disorder, there may be variations in how DCD is expressed from one child to another. However, there are commonalities in symptoms that form a direct link to DCD. Tools and information are available to help understand and identify DCD better.

Other areas that indicate the probability of DCD disorder are prevalent as well. In fact, even playing can be an issue. Play that involves intricate activities like carefully stacking blocks so that they don’t fall can be both a challenge and a source of anxiety for a child with DCD. Fitting objects into small openings would prove difficult as well. Clearly, precise movement is severely compromised in the child with DCD. This is why properly using and handling spoons, forks, and knives can be a bit challenging too. Any activity that requires a precision of movement will be a challenge for a child with DCD.

Causes of Developmental Coordination Disorder

Children diagnosed with this disorder do not usually have a neurological or medical problem that would explain why they have coordination problems. The problems and delays with motor skills are diagnosed based upon the symptoms and noted to have no direct link to any medical or neurological problem that would have an impact on mobility.

However, research now points to atypical brain development that affects the way in which the brain connects with different parts to learn a new skill. This results in an inability for the child to have full control over a movement or action. Another possible cause or predisposition has been linked to pre-term birth as well as stressful birth complications. DCD makes it difficult for a child’s brain to link body sensors with motor commands. However, with practice and therapy, characteristic symptoms can improve.

Throughout the years, DCD has gone by many different names. In terms of diagnosis, DCD wasn’t considered a medical or neurological disorder. However, research has revealed that DCD does result from abnormalities in brain function. The cause of DCD has been linked to premature births and trauma during the birthing experience. Research continues to reveal more about this rare disorder.

Although it is not curable and continues into adulthood, treatment can help those who suffer from this condition improve both physically and mentally. Early diagnosis is essential in terms of starting the treatment process as soon as possible. DCD can vary from child to child, however, there are identifying commonalities. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of treatments and therapies available to help navigate this disorder.

Although DCD is not necessarily preventable, secondary consequences can be prevented when treatment begins at an early enough stage. If left untreated, DCD can result in more severe physical challenges as well as behavioral issues. Given time, effort, and practice, children with DCD can accomplish many physical and mental milestones.

Treatments for Developmental Coordination Disorder

Treatment is often twofold.

The combination of occupational and physical therapies are usually combined as treatment for developmental coordination disorder. Physical exercise in the form of cardio for 20-30 minutes a day 5 days a week is common. The therapies used to treat this disorder include occupational therapy, physical therapy, sensory integration therapy, and support groups for people who have similar disorders. Each type of therapy plays an integral part in the treatment of this disorder.

Sensory integration therapy involves exposing the patient to different sensory experiences like sound and touch in a controlled environment, whereas physical therapy helps increase muscle strength and function with different exercises. Occupational therapy helps patients improve day to day living skills and work skills as well. However, support groups provide the emotional piece to the therapeutic puzzle. Support groups provide a platform where people who suffer from similar disorders can express themselves.

A child with this type of affliction may see many different specialists for his or her treatment. Common specialists that treat this disorder are neurologists, speech therapists, and pediatricians. However, this disorder requires a medical diagnosis, but rarely lab tests or imaging.

The treatment prescribed for a child with DCD is just as individual as he or she is. What may be a real challenge to one child may not be to another. However, the varied types of therapies make treatment extremely helpful for most children. Physical therapy and counseling are often treatments prescribed for children with DCD. The physical therapy helps with motor control and development, and the counseling helps with the mental piece of the puzzle. It’s easy for kids to get angry when they see other children easily accomplishing tasks that are difficult for them. This is why team sports may not be a good activity for a child with DCD until he or she learns some mastery over the physical requirements for a specific sport or activity.

In addition, problems with attention span and hyperactivity usually follow DCD. Self-esteem and behavior issues are often a problem as well. This is where physical therapy paired with counseling can greatly improve a child’s self-esteem and willingness to manage his or her problem. This disorder only affects 5-6 per cent of school age children in the United States. Assessments for DCD usually don’t require labs or x-rays, instead, a diagnosis is often determined by a battery of tests and an established history of developmental milestones that were not met by a certain age. These are usually the signs and precursors that point to the disorder.

Prevention of Developmental Coordination Disorder

Currently, there are no known methods of prevention for DCD.

However, secondary consequences can be prevented. Secondary consequences include both physical and mental challenges for the child. Physical therapy and counseling can be effective at handling difficulties before they become bigger issues than they have to be. Encouraging physical activity and helping children with DCD learn to deal with their anxiety can often offset some of the seriousness of secondary consequences.

The earlier this disorder is diagnosed the better the child’s chances are for avoiding limiting physical and mental impairments. When the right physical activities and counseling are put in place, children are able to deal with the challenges of DCD and prevent the onset or the development of physical and mental limitations. DCD can often cause anxiety and fear in children who suffer from it. Many of these emotions can be managed which helps prevent the development of more self-limiting behaviors that would make it difficult for a child with this disorder to improve function and mobility.

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are often favored treatments for DCD. However, DCD is approached from a very personalized point of view. One treatment is not considered more effective than another. Instead, the efficacy of a particular treatment is gauged simply by how well a child, in particular, responds to it. The treatments can be just as wide and varied as the prevalence of the disorder.

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Last Reviewed:
September 23, 2017
Last Updated:
September 23, 2017