Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify key characteristics and symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders occur when the development of the nervous system is disturbed. There are several different classes of neurodevelopmental disorders. Some, like Down Syndrome, cause intellectual deficits. Others specifically affect communication, learning, or the motor system. Some disorders like autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder have complex symptoms.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Its severity differs from person to person. Estimates for the prevalence of the disorder have changed rapidly in the past few decades. Current estimates suggest that one in 88 children will develop the disorder. ASD is four times more prevalent in males than females.

This video discusses possible reasons why there was a steep increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism – rather than the vaccine conspiracy theory, which has no scientific basis.

A characteristic symptom of ASD is impaired social skills. Children with autism may have difficulty making and maintaining eye contact and reading social cues. They also may have problems feeling empathy for others. Other symptoms of ASD include repetitive motor behaviors (such as rocking back and forth), preoccupation with specific subjects, strict adherence to certain rituals, and unusual language use. Up to 30 percent of patients with ASD develop epilepsy, and patients with some forms of the disorder (like Fragile X) also have intellectual disability. Because it is a spectrum disorder, other ASD patients are very functional and have good-to-excellent language skills. Many of these patients do not feel that they suffer from a disorder and instead think that their brains just process information differently.

Except for some well-characterized, clearly genetic forms of autism (like Fragile X and Rett’s Syndrome), the causes of ASD are largely unknown. Variants of several genes correlate with the presence of ASD, but for any given patient, many different mutations in different genes may be required for the disease to develop. At a general level, ASD is thought to be a disease of “incorrect” wiring. Accordingly, brains of some ASD patients lack the same level of synaptic pruning that occurs in non-affected people. In the 1990s, a research paper linked autism to a common vaccine given to children. This paper was retracted when it was discovered that the author falsified data, and follow-up studies showed no connection between vaccines and autism.

Treatment for autism usually combines behavioral therapies and interventions, along with medications to treat other disorders common to people with autism (depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder). Although early interventions can help mitigate the effects of the disease, there is currently no cure for ASD.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Approximately three to five percent of children and adults are affected by attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Like ASD, ADHD is more prevalent in males than females. Symptoms of the disorder include inattention (lack of focus), executive functioning difficulties, impulsivity, and hyperactivity beyond what is characteristic of the normal developmental stage. Some patients do not have the hyperactive component of symptoms and are diagnosed with a subtype of ADHD: attention deficit disorder (ADD). Many people with ADHD also show comorbitity, in that they develop secondary disorders in addition to ADHD. Examples include depression or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Figure 1 provides some statistics concerning comorbidity with ADHD.

Bar graph shows that 49% of ADHD patients suffer from ADHD alone. Seven percent have both ADHD and conduct disorder. Eleven percent have ADHD and depression. Eleven percent have ADHD and anxiety disorder. Twenty-four percent have ADHD and a combination of depression, anxiety disorder, and conduct disorder.

Figure 1. Many people with ADHD have one or more other neurological disorders. (credit “chart design and illustration”: modification of work by Leigh Coriale; credit “data”: Drs. Biederman and Faraone, Massachusetts General Hospital)

The cause of ADHD is unknown, although research points to a delay and dysfunction in the development of the prefrontal cortex and disturbances in neurotransmission. According to studies of twins, the disorder has a strong genetic component. There are several candidate genes that may contribute to the disorder, but no definitive links have been discovered. Environmental factors, including exposure to certain pesticides, may also contribute to the development of ADHD in some patients. Treatment for ADHD often involves behavioral therapies and the prescription of stimulant medications, which paradoxically cause a calming effect in these patients.

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