Physical Development & Cognitive Impairments in Children

Physical disabilities permanently impact the way a child moves or controls her body, while cognitive impairments, or intellectual disabilities, affect the way a child thinks and learns. Even though children develop at different rates, there are certain milestones that healthy children reach by specific ages. For example, by age 5, a child should be able to use her imagination and brush her own teeth, according to the Mayo Clinic’s online article “Child Development Chart: Preschool Milestones.”


There are several types of physical development impairments such as spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, autism spectrum disorders or cerebral palsy. A child with a cognitive impairment has below-average intellectual functioning and adaptive skills in relation to his age, according to an online article by the Siskin Children’s Institute, “Cognitive Impairment.”

Like physical disabilities, cognitive impairments come in varying degrees. The Merck Manual’s online Home Health Handbook states that a cognitive impairment isn’t a specific medical disorder. Instead, children with this type of disability have “varying degrees of impairment.” For example, a child with an intelligence quotient, or IQ, between 52 and 69 has a mild cognitive impairment that can affect motor coordination and communication skills. Children with an IQ range between 20 and 35 have a severe impairment that affect the ability to communicate and move well.


Children with physical development impairments may acquire them from having a cognitive impairment, spinal or brain injuries, inherited genetic disorders, congenital disorders or an illness that affects the muscles, brain or nerves, according to the Women’s and Children’s Health Network website 1. The WebMD article “Recognizing Developmental Delays in Children” states that medical problems after birth, exposure to toxins, genetic defects, malnutrition, preeclampsia, a learning disability, neglect, premature birth or a pervasive developmental disorder can cause a cognitive impairment in a child 3.


You can see signs of possible physical development impairments in a baby as young as 4 months. For example, by this age, a baby should be able to support his own head. A baby should be able to at least crawl by the time he reaches 12 months and then walk by age 2. A child with a physical developmental problem may not be able to balance on one foot or walk on his toes, or he may not have control over his muscles.

A child with cognitive impairments may reach physical development milestones later than other children, have difficulty speaking or interacting socially, trouble knowing how to use common objects or can’t follow instructions well. Children with such a disability may not understand consequences, have short attention spans, experience difficulties retaining information and lack the age-appropriate self-care skills, like hand-washing.


Many developmental delays go undiagnosed until it’s too late for early intervention treatment services to be the most effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention article “Developmental Monitoring and Screening.” Professional treatments for physical development and cognitive impairments can include physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy 4. Neurologists, social workers, psychologists, nutritionists and a developmental pediatrician can also provide treatments tailored to the needs of a child with cognitive and physical impairments.