What Is Pervasive Developmental Disorder [PDD]?

what is pervasive developmental disorder pdd

Takeaway: PDD is the older term for what we now call Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It describes children whose brains function uniquely, giving them a whole new set of strengths and weaknesses. Most notably, though, children with ASD have issues socialising, communicating, and learning. These differences often make it harder to thrive at school and build a circle of close friends. But given the right support, children with ASD can learn to live a fulfilling life. 

When a child’s brain develops differently, it often creates unique personality characteristics. And pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) is a specific kind of brain difference creating a specific type of personality.

We usually think of brain development in a largely biological sense: A baby’s brain cells (neurons) form and reform a complex network of pathways that transmit electrical impulses. But in parallel, the same baby is also developing a mind and personality. And these can change dramatically, depending on the biological hardwiring of the brain. PDD is a developmental difference in the brain that changes how a child socialises, communicates, and engages with the world. And this creates a unique set of challenges, which we’ll cover in a bit.

Labels like PDD are tricky because they can oversimplify a child’s complex personality into a list of traits. But, when used correctly, they can help therapists and parents provide better care.

When a child gets a PDD diagnosis, many things fall into place. For one, it alerts caregivers to the related challenges their child might face and the kind of help she’ll need. Then, it immediately clarifies the kinds of therapy to use — usually a mix of occupational therapy, speech therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy. And finally, the diagnosis is essential if parents want access to government support.

So, what are the traits of a child with PDD? Well, there are 5 subtypes of PDD, each with related characteristics.

While all the subtypes have PDD traits, they have some differences, too.

  1. Autism: Here, children struggle with social interaction, have rigid routines and rituals, and might have intellectual disabilities. (Learn more about autism.)
  2. Asperger’s syndrome: Effectively, a milder form of autism without the intellectual disabilities. (Learn more about Asperger’s syndrome.)
  3. PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified): Children with PDD-NOS have the traits of autism/Asperger’s, but are more sociable.
  4. Childhood disintegrative disorder: These children start without PDD traits but then rapidly lose their language, motor, and social skills over just a few months.
  5. Rett’s syndrome: Here, the emphasis is on motor skill issues — i.e., problems walking, picking things up, etc. It primarily affects girls since it’s caused by a difference in the X chromosome. (Note: It’s the only PDD subtype with a clear genetic cause.)

It’s easiest to understand PDD in terms of these subtypes, but it’s not the most accurate approach. Nowadays, we use the term  ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ (ASD), instead.

In May 2013, psychologists replaced the term PDD with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). So, instead of there being separate subtypes, children with these traits are seen as being on the autism spectrum. This offers a more fluid way of understanding a child’s personality without trying to fit her into an arbitrary subtype.

You’ll need a multidisciplinary team (paediatricians or clinical psychologists and specialist speech & language therapist) for an official ASD diagnosis, but you might be able to spot some of the early signs yourself.

Children with ASD usually have traits in these major categories.

  • You may notice that your child likes to be left alone and/or has trouble socialising. And even if she wants friends, she’ll likely not quite know how to make them. Often this is because she can’t understand the inner world (feelings, intentions, needs, etc.) of her playmates enough to connect with them.
  • She might struggle to learn how to speak, repeating phrases reflexively rather than truly expressing herself. She might also find it hard to recognise subtext in conversations — for example, a sarcastic smirk, an angry frown, or a joke that uses a play on words. If she misses these, she’s missing out on half the message.
  • She may have learning difficulties and struggle to focus on, process, and understand what you’re saying.
  • Sensory input. She might have a complicated relationship with the sights, smells, and feel of her environment. For example, she could be easily overwhelmed by a noisy classroom or a crowded supermarket. Or, instead, she might crave more stimuli — perhaps wanting to explore a room by touching everything or putting random objects in her mouth?
  • She’ll likely have unshakeable routines and rituals. So, something seemingly simple like a new route to school or a different cereal for breakfast might stress her to the point of a meltdown. You might notice that she has a routine while playing, too, and doesn’t like experimenting with new games or toys.

The problem with leaving ASD undiagnosed is that it has a ripple effect that can affect almost all parts of your child’s life.

Since she has trouble concentrating, your child will struggle in class — even with foundational things like learning how to read and write. Further, her communication issues will make it much harder to get along with everybody else. So, she’ll likely feel isolated and be vulnerable to bullying. If she has motor issues (like with Rett’s syndrome), then she’ll find it difficult to draw, cut shapes, and most importantly — play with classmates. She also won’t be able to do things like tie her shoelaces, button her clothes, and use cutlery. And as these differences pile up, she’ll find it harder to develop a sense of confidence and self-worth.

If you’ve noticed ASD traits in your child, contact us for an assessment, and we’ll guide you from there.

The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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