What are Pervasive Developmental Disorders?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on January 12, 2023
2 min read

You might have heard of pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs) that include delays in how a child typically develops, problems with socializing and communicating, trouble when a routine changes, and repetitive movements and behaviors

But it’s actually not a term that doctors use anymore. PDDs are now called autism spectrum disorder.

The name change came in 2013, when the American Psychiatric Association reclassified autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) as autism spectrum disorders.

Why the change? The spectrum concept is a more medically accurate way of diagnosing children with these disorders.

Children on the autism spectrum have problems with social communication and interactions, and they often repeat certain behaviors. They may also:

  • Avoid eye contact
  • Not be able to express what they’re thinking through language
  • Have a high-pitched or flat voice
  • Find it hard to keep up a conversation
  • Have trouble controlling emotions
  • Perform repetitive behaviors like hand-flapping, rocking, jumping, or twirling

Children on the spectrum may repeat certain types of play, have trouble with “make believe,” and be more interested in parts of a toy, rather than the toy itself. They need strict schedules and don’t like changes to their routines.

Keep in mind that the spectrum has a wide range. Some people with an ASD live on their own, go to school, and hold a job. You might not know that they have a condition. Others have severe disabilities. And many are somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum.

Finding all the causes of ASDs is a big topic of research. Scientists know that genetics are one of the risk factors. But they don’t have all of the answers yet. There’s not one “autism gene” that’s at work. Many things, in addition to genes, may be involved.

To make the diagnosis, doctors observe the child and ask questions of the parents or guardians about the child’s behaviors. The diagnosis may be suspected by developmental screens done at 9 months, 18 months and 24 months of age. There is no lab test for an autism spectrum disorder.

The key is to find out as soon as possible if a child is on the spectrum. That way, you can line up resources to help your child reach their full potential. The sooner that starts, the better.

There are medications to help children with symptoms. Medication works best when paired with therapy that develops socialization and other life skills.

Keep in mind that someone who’s on the spectrum experiences the world differently. Their victories and challenges might be very different from yours. It helps to appreciate them as they are, with their own unique personalities and interests, while you get them the support and skills that could make a big difference in their future.