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What is a childhood disability?

4-minute read

What is disability?

A person with disability may be unable to perform certain functions as well as most other people. The disability may be physical; it may involve senses, including seeing or hearing; it may involve finding it difficult or impossible to think clearly; or it may involve mental health. Many people with a disability have full abilities in other areas.

Disability is common — about 1 in 50 children has a disability. There are many types of disability, including disabilities that children are born with, disabilities that develop after birth, and disabilities that are caused by injury.

Children with disability may have special needs and require early intervention and as much support as possible.

Common disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and intellectual and physical disabilities create challenges with thinking, behaviour and skill development.

Childhood disability

Disability in childhood can have a lifelong impact on a person’s physical, mental and emotional health, as well as their social situation. Children with disability may have special needs, particularly regarding health and education, and may need to negotiate significant social and environmental barriers in order to fully participate in everyday life.

Congenital disorders

A congenital disorder is a condition that is present from birth. It can be inherited or caused by environmental factors. Common congenital disorders include:

  • intellectual disability — where a child takes longer to learn than others and may experience delays in their development
  • Down syndrome (Trisomy 21) — a common genetic condition that causes intellectual disability
  • cerebral palsy — a physical disability that makes it hard for a child to control how their body moves
  • Fragile X syndrome — an inherited condition that causes intellectual disability and learning and behaviour problems

Find out more here about congenital disorders.

Developed after birth

Some disabilities develop after birth. These include hearing problems, heart conditions, and blood, metabolism and hormone disorders. Detecting these problems soon after birth can prevent them from becoming more serious physical, intellectual, visual or hearing disabilities.


Autism is a disability that is now known by the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’.

Children aren’t usually diagnosed with autism until after they have reached 2 years of age. Although its causes are not fully understood, autism has been linked to genetic factors.

Caused by injury

Physical, mental and behavioural disabilities can occur when a trauma or injury (such as falling from a height) affects the brain. Other causes of acquired brain injury include loss of oxygen (for example, due to asthma or after a near- drowning), infection (such as meningitis) and stroke.

Severe physical injuries, such as spinal cord injury or losing an arm or leg in an accident, can cause physical disability.

Developmental delay or disability?

Disabilities are different from developmental delays. A child with a developmental delay is developing skills more slowly than most other children. This does not mean they have disability.

Not all children develop at the same rate, so some children naturally take longer to develop than others. Developmental delays can be short or long-term and can happen in any area of your child’s development.

In contrast, disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, some speech disorders, hearing impairment and intellectual disability will last for your child’s whole life. They will have permanent delays in the area of their disability.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2021

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Recommended links

Need more information?

Intellectual disability | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

What is intellectual disability? A child with an intellectual disability learns and develops slower than other children

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Intellectual disability: children & teens | Raising Children Network

Intellectual disability is a reduced ability to think and to learn new skills. Here’s how to get support for children and teens with intellectual disability.

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Learning disabilities: children & teens | Raising Children Network

Learning disabilities are problems with reading, spelling or maths. Read how to support children with learning disabilities so they can learn successfully.

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Autism & disability services for children | Raising Children Network

Disability services can be confusing. Our guide to services for children with disability, autism and other additional needs helps you navigate the system.

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Law & rights for children with disability | Raising Children Network

Here you’ll find information on disability rights and anti-discrimination law in Australia, as well as resources to help you find disability services.

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NDIS plans & early childhood support | Raising Children Network

If your child is using the NDIS, you work with an NDIS representative to choose early childhood disability services to support your child’s development.

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Dyslexia in children and teenagers | Raising Children Network

Dyslexia is a learning disability. Children with dyslexia have trouble with reading and spelling. Support helps children with dyslexia achieve and succeed.

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Down syndrome in children: a guide | Raising Children Network

Down syndrome causes intellectual disability and other challenges. Early intervention can help children with Down syndrome reach their full potential.

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Child disability services & support: video | Raising Children Network

In this video, parents and child disability experts talk about disability services for children, funding, service providers, respite care and counselling.

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Mental Health Intellectual Disability hub | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

The Sydney Children’s Hospital Network Mental Health and Intellectual Disability (MHID) Hub is a state-wide tertiary service to improve the mental health of children and adolescents with intellectual disability and/or autism under 18 years of age

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

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