Understanding Developmental Coordination Disorder

Health Care

Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is a chronic motor skills disorder that impairs a child’s ability to perform everyday tasks. Here’s what you ought to know.

As a pediatric physiotherapist, I get to spend most of my day cuddling cute babies and playing in a really fun gym. This is the part that most people see. But what’s often not known is the part of my role which involves facilitating diagnoses for families that are struggling to identify the cause of their child’s difficulties. Although physiotherapists don’t have the designation to provide diagnoses, the information we collect during our assessments can provide a valuable piece of the puzzle to physicians or psychologists who are charged with this often challenging task. One such diagnosis that physiotherapists can assist with is the little known and often overlooked Developmental Coordination Disorder.

What is Developmental Coordination Disorder?

Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is a chronic motor skills disorder that affects 5-6 % of all school-aged children and tends to occur more frequently in boys (CanChild, 2015). Children with DCD present with delays in development of motor skills or have difficulty coordinating movements and these factors result in the child being unable to perform everyday tasks. Meaning, in order for a child to be diagnosed with DCD, these motor impairments must negatively affect some other aspect of the child’s life. A child with DCD may have the following characteristics:

Physical characteristics:

  • Be clumsy or awkward and trip or bump into things frequently
  • Experience difficulty with gross motor skills, fine motor skills, or both
  • Find learning new motor skills (e.g., riding a bike or catching a ball), to be quite challenging
  • Have difficulty writing/printing
  • Have trouble getting dressed, especially with managing zippers and tying shoelaces
  • Have difficulty with activities that require the coordinated use of both sides of the body (e.g., using scissors, jumping jacks, swinging a bat, or handling a hockey stick)
  • Have motor abilities that are inconsistent with cognitive and/or verbal abilities (e.g., language skills may be quite strong while motor skills are delayed)

Emotional/social characteristics:

  • Avoid sports and other physical activities
  • Have as low frustration tolerance, decreased self-esteem, and lack of motivation due to problems coping with activities of daily living
  • Avoid socializing with peers on the playground (Some children will seek out younger children to play with while others will go off on their own. This may be due to decreased self-confidence or avoidance of physical activities)

By definition, children with DCD do not have an identifiable medical or neurological condition that explains these coordination difficulties. A DCD diagnosis is typically made by a family doctor, pediatrician, or psychologist with the support of a physiotherapist or occupational therapist who can complete and appropriate standardized assessment of the child’s motor skills. Once armed with a diagnosis, parents can access resources and services to best assist them in meeting their child’s needs.

What can therapy do?

A physiotherapist (or occupational therapist) can help the child, their parents, and their teachers to better understand the coordination difficulties that the child is experiencing. A therapist will observe and assess the child and then make recommendations to allow the child to maximize their participation in activities, improve their confidence, and ultimately help them develop stronger motor skills. These recommendations may include: activities to improve the child’s motor coordination; ideas for community leisure and sports activities; specific strategies or accommodations for handwriting and other classroom tasks; tips to make dressing and feeding easier; and setting appropriate expectations to ensure that the child experiences success.

If you have concerns about your child’s development, never hesitate to talk to your doctor and ask for resources or referrals. When we work as a team, our ability to help your child reach their potential is unlimited.

For more information on DCD and other developmental disorders, visit CanChild.ca

Is your baby’s development on track? Check out the milestones for the first 12 months here.

Does your child W-sit? Read about W-sitting and core exercise training here.

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Jennifer Halfin, MSc(A) PT Reg (Ont)

About Jennifer Halfin, MSc(A) PT Reg (Ont)

Jennifer is a registered physiotherapist working in the field of paediatrics. She has worked with children of all ages, helping them to achieve their motor milestones through various therapeutic approaches. Jenn also has extensive experience working with infants with torticollis and plagiocephaly. As a new mom herself, she loves sharing her experiences and learning from others.

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