Global Developmental Delay (GDD) : An Understanding of the Impacts and How We Can Support Infants and Young Children

According to a report from the American Academy of Neurology “Global developmental delay is common and affects 1% to 3% of children“ [1]. So what exactly is global developmental delay, what does it look like and how can it be treated?

What is Global Developmental Delay?

Children typically meet developmental stages at similar rates, however it is not uncommon for a child to hit a developmental milestone before another.

Airplane Mobile
A child with Global Developmental Delay (GDD) typically presents with a delay in multiple developmental areas. Areas of delay may include speech and language, social, cognition, play and motor skills. Children with GDD will typically present as younger, or behind, their typically developing peers.

A child diagnosed with GDD may later be diagnosed with a more specific diagnosis such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, this is not always the case.

How Does it Impact a Child?

​GDD may impact a child by limiting their ability to:

  • Understand and retain information
  • Problem solve
  • Interpret social cues and social awareness
  • Respond appropriately to others
  • Gain personal independence and self care skills
  • Navigate their environment through movement (gross and fine motor skills)
  • Interact and play with their same aged peers

What Causes Global Developmental Delay?

Some studies have shown that family history may contribute to global developmental delay, this may include genetic conditions such as Down Syndrome or a chromosomal condition such as Fragile X Syndrome (FXS).

​It could also result from environmental factors such as difficulties during pregnancy including exposure to toxins.

A recent clinical paper [2] published in late 2019 found that DNA testing allows scientists to find factors that may cause GDD. This was found in a significant proportion of patients 55.7%.

Life incidents and illness may also contribute to GDD such as injuries or infections to the brain and malnutrition.

A research article published on 1 June 2020 [3] studied 100 children from Central India with severe acute malnutrition (SAM) found that 78% of children showed a delay in motor, language and cognitive ability.

As part of this study they also found that children with a low birth weight were at increased risk of GDD.

How Does Global Developmental Delay Compare to Autism Spectrum Disorder?

​There are many crossovers in terms of behaviour and development, however GDD tends to present fewer barriers to learning than Autism Spectrum Disorder.

For example a study [4] showed that those with GDD were better at imitating others than those diagnosed with ASD, a key learning to learn skill for children.

Children diagnosed with GDD are less likely to engage in restrictive or repetitive behaviour patterns, and will typically respond more appropriately during social interactions with others.

Child Playing In The Sand
Children with GDD may present with a more prominent delay in problem solving, motor skills and adaptive behaviours, compared to their peers with ASD [5].

Studies have shown that as the child gets older, it becomes easier to identify the differences between GDD and ASD.

Children with ASD typically present with:

  • Repetitive behaviours (e.g., repeating sounds for non-communicative purposes, flapping their hands, rocking back and forth)
  • Non-responsive to social interactions with others
  • Limited imitation of others actions, sounds or words
  • Restricted behaviours (e.g., fixations on non-functional objects within their environment or fixations on one topic or toy)

Who Diagnoses Global Developmental Delay?

Usually a specialist, paediatrician or developmental psychologist would provide a GDD diagnosis. It is common for the paediatrician to refer the family to a developmental psychologist.

​Typically a delay would be present for at least 6 months before a diagnosis is given.

Boy Looking Out The Window

How Does Global Developmental Delay Affect Learning?

Children with GDD usually take longer to acquire new skills from the early years. They may be lacking the foundational skills required to learn, and acquiring these skills may take longer than their peers.

Children with GDD often require additional and intensive support in educational settings to learn new skills, as well as to help them learn at a faster rate and catch up to their peers.

Each child diagnosed with GDD will be impacted by their disability in a different way and this is why it is important to do a comprehensive assessment to find out exactly where your child’s current set of skills are, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

The brain’s ability to change and adapt is at its greatest during the ages of 0–3 years [6]. Therefore, appropriate early intervention is critical for infants with GDD to get the best outcomes.

If the child is older, behavioural intervention programs will still be effective, however early and intensive treatment results in more positive outcomes.
Child Art, Pens and toys

What Are the Treatments Available?

Speech therapy, occupational therapy and ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) therapy are common treatments available to support a child with GDD. Some children might also see a physiotherapist for motor skills development.

Early and intensive intervention works best when delivered in a child’s natural environment, whether that be at home, daycare, preschool or at school.

​Providing parents and carers with the support, training and tools that they need to help their child meet their goals in the early intervention program. Parental involvement is fundamental to a child’s success.

Mosaic Early Intervention provides custom tailored programs for children with GDD to help them develop new skills and overcome common barriers.

We provide a supportive and intensive mobile service, with around 20 hours or more per week delivered in the child’s natural environment and providing support to all key people in the child’s life.

You can find out more about our services here. If you have any questions please feel free to contact us via our contact form.


  1. Practice parameter: Evaluation of the child with global developmental delay
  2. Diagnostic and Clinical Utility of Clinical Exome Sequencing in Children With Moderate and Severe Global Developmental Delay / Intellectual Disability
  3. Determinants of motor, language, cognitive, and global developmental delay in children with complicated severe acute malnutrition at the time of discharge: An observational study from Central India
  4. Mechanisms of Imitation Impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder
  5. Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children with Low Mental Age
  6. Effects of the portage early education program on Chinese children with global developmental delay

At Mosaic, we understand how difficult it can be to sift through all the information when first receiving a diagnosis or needing support.

For more information please take a look at our FAQ page. If you have any questions or would like to find out more about our service, please get in touch.