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What is a Developmental Specialist?

By K. Pike
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A developmental specialist is a medical professional that is an authority in assessing the physical, medical, or emotional development of an individual. A referral to a developmental specialist is usually sought out when there is concern about the development of a child. While developmental specialists are often thought of in terms of aiding children, there are adult and teenage developmental specialists as well.

As children mature and grow they are expected to learn and accomplish particular skills. These skills are referred to as milestones. Milestones indicate how a child is responding to, and learning about, the world around him. For example, a child will normally begin to walk between ten and sixteen months of age.

Generally, children master milestones within the predictable age range, while others are delayed, or fail to achieve certain milestones at all. Investigation may be warranted when a child does not reach particular milestones within a typical time frame. Disorders like Down syndrome or autism, prematurity, infection, and hearing loss are some examples of what can cause a developmental problem.

Qualifications of a developmental specialist vary. Basic requirements include completion of a bachelor or masters degree in childhood development, special education, psychology, or social work. A license in early childhood development is sometimes required by the employing facility.

Another kind of developmental expert is a “Developmental Pediatrician.” These pediatricians are medical doctors that specialize in both pediatrics and childhood development. They usually work with children who have more severe developmental problems that may affect their health.

Assessment and advisement are the primary goals of a developmental specialist. The most common assessments surround the following categories: gross motor skills, fine motor skills, muscle tone, language development, and play. Usually, the specialist will ask the parent or guardian to complete a questionnaire about the child. The specialist will then proceed by directing and observing the child complete a series of tasks. The assessment process can take one or two sessions, with a session lasting anywhere from an hour to two hours.

Once observation and assessment are complete, the developmental specialist will suggest a treatment plan. Patients who are experiencing delays in one or two areas may require specialized therapy until the problem has been resolved. For example, a child delayed in language may go through speech therapy for a short period of time without any need of future services. However, it is a good idea to keep in mind that each individual is unique and may require more assistance in certain areas.

When multiple areas of development are delayed, or never achieved, it may denote a disorder or syndrome that will require additional specialists. When this occurs, the developmental specialist will typically spend time educating the family on the disorder or syndrome. Recommendations and referrals for other services are also given to the family. Developmental specialists are often thought of fondly because they are able to provide families with the encouragement and resources they need.

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Discussion Comments
By anon233483 — On Dec 07, 2011

"A developmental specialist is a medical professional"? This statement is inaccurate. Most developmental specialists have education degrees, not medical degrees. Some are dual certified, but generally, developmental specialists refer to speech, occupational, physical therapists for more medical evaluations.

Developmental specialists assess development - what is considered typical and what areas of development may be delayed. Just wanted to clarify. Best of luck and remember, you know your child best.

By SauteePan — On Jan 25, 2011

Suntan12 - I know that Miami Children’s Hospital has an early child development program in which they have a team of specialists that diagnose children with ADHD and other cognitive disorders. They also offer speech and occupational therapy as well.

Their speech therapists are top notch and most children have to wait about six months for an initial speech evaluation. They have to place you on a waiting list.

By suntan12 — On Jan 24, 2011

Bhutan- I know that my friend’s son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 5.

He had significant speech delays and spoke in a slower cadence than normal. He also would not make eye contact and needed occupational therapy for his lack of fine motor skills.

He also suffered from sensory processing disorder and had difficulty reading because he also experienced auditory problems.

He went to a school for children with developmental delays called Vanguard and the following year he was able to attend public school in a mainstream classroom.

He still sees a speech and occupational therapist, but it goes to show you that with early intervention you can make a significant difference in the child’s life.

By Bhutan — On Jan 22, 2011

Moldova- I know that pediatricians ask these milestone questions at each wellness visit in order to determine that the child is successfully growing through the child development stages properly.

While each child develops at their own pace there are gross motor, fine motor, and speech development milestones that have to be mastered by certain ages in order to ensure that the child does not have any cognitive deficiencies.

By Moldova — On Jan 21, 2011

Child development milestones help parents and doctors determine the norms within various child development stages.

For example, children by the age of two should been able to say a few words. Not reaching this milestone can be an indicator of some form of autism.

Children with autism or autistic spectrum disorders generally have significant speech delays but further testing with a medical specialist would be needed to make the complete diagnosis.

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