Neurological disorders in children can be complex and challenging to detect. These disorders encompass a range of conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, impacting a child’s development, behavior, and overall well-being.
This comprehensive article will delve into the subtle signals that may indicate a neurological disorder in children.
By familiarizing ourselves with these warning signs, we can empower ourselves to take proactive steps towards early diagnosis, intervention, and providing the necessary support.
What is a neurological disorder?
Neurological disorders affect the nervous system and often lead to difficulties with movement, speech, thinking ability, or mental health.
These disorders can affect anyone in any age group, but children are particularly vulnerable to these conditions due to their developing brains.
Their effects are mainly felt in the nervous system, including essential organs like the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, which result in significant hindrances to overall bodily function .
Here are some of the most common pediatric neurological disorders:
- Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Cerebral Palsy
- Intellectual Disabilities
What causes neurological disorders in children?
Pediatric neurological disorders have a variety of causes, and understanding these causes is essential for diagnosis, treatment, and support.
While the exact factors contributing to neurological disorders vary depending on the specific condition, several common causes have been identified:
Mutations or genetic abnormalities can significantly affect children developing neurological disorders. Inherited genetic conditions, like Down, Fragile X, and Rett, are associated with neurological impairments.
Spontaneous genetic mutations can occur during early development, leading to neurological disorders.
Many neurological disorders originate during pregnancy due to various prenatal factors, including :
- Infections: mother contracted infections like rubella, cytomegalovirus, or Zika virus during pregnancy
- Exposure to toxins: harmful substances during pregnancy, like alcohol, tobacco, certain medications, or illicit drugs
- Birth complications: complications during labor and delivery, like oxygen deprivation (asphyxia), premature birth, low birth weight, or trauma during delivery
Neurological disorders can also be acquired or develop after birth due to various factors, including :
- Infections: postnatal infections, like meningitis or encephalitis
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI): severe head injuries, falls, accidents, or physical abuse
- Environmental factors: exposure to harmful toxins like lead or certain pesticides
- Metabolic disorders: the body cannot properly break down or process certain substances
- Unknown causes: the exact cause of a neurological disorder may remain unknown
How do I know if my child has a neurological disorder?
Neurological disorders are characterized by abnormal nervous system functioning, manifesting in various ways.
By recognizing the warning signs and seeking timely intervention, parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals can make a significant difference in a child’s life.
1. Delayed developmental milestones
As children grow, they achieve various developmental milestones, like rolling over, crawling, walking, talking, and socializing with others.
While the timeline for achieving these milestones can vary, monitoring a child’s progress is essential to meet age-appropriate expectations.
Delayed developmental milestones can be a red flag for neurological disorders, indicating that the brain is not developing or functioning as it should . Some warning signs include:
- Inability to make eye contact or respond to their name
- Difficulty sitting up or crawling by eight months
- Unable to walk independently by 18 months
- Loss of language or social skills they previously had
- Not speaking at least 15 words in two years
It is important to note that delayed developmental milestones do not necessarily indicate a neurological disorder, but instead, they are a signal to seek professional guidance for a comprehensive evaluation.
2. Regression in skills
One concerning warning sign of a pediatric neurological disorder is the regression of previously acquired skills. Regression refers to the loss or decline in abilities that a child has once learned .
This loss can occur in various areas of development, including language, motor skills, social interaction, or cognitive abilities.
Regression may manifest differently depending on the child and the specific skills affected. Here are some examples of regression in different domains:
- Language regression: A child who previously had a vocabulary of words and could communicate effectively may suddenly start losing words or have difficulty expressing themselves, forming sentences, forgetting familiar words, or understanding and following instructions.
- Motor skills regression: A child who had previously achieved age-appropriate motor milestones, such as crawling, walking, or fine motor skills, like holding objects or writing, may exhibit a regression in their motor abilities.
- Social and emotional regression: Children with neurological disorders may also exhibit social and emotional skills regression. They may lose previously developed social interactions, such as making eye contact, responding to their name, or engaging in reciprocal play. Emotional regression may manifest as increased irritability, difficulty managing emotions, or regression to previous developmental stages, like temper tantrums.
Causes of skill regression
The causes of regression in skills vary depending on the underlying neurological condition. Sometimes, it could be linked to interruptions in brain growth or the performance of specific brain parts.
3. Seizures and epilepsy
Seizures can manifest in various ways, and the symptoms experienced during an episode depend on the area of the brain affected . Common types of seizures in children include:
- Generalized: These seizures involve both sides of the brain and can cause loss of consciousness, convulsions, muscle rigidity, or subtle behavioral changes.
- Focal: Focal seizures occur in a specific region of the brain and can result in localized symptoms, such as repetitive movements, altered sensations, or changes in emotions or thought patterns.
- Absence: Absence seizures are brief episodes of staring and decreased responsiveness, often mistaken for daydreaming. The child may appear temporarily disconnected from their surroundings during this event.
- Epilepsy: Epilepsy is diagnosed when a child experiences recurrent seizures. However, not all seizures indicate epilepsy, as a single episode can occur due to various factors such as fever or head trauma. However, if a child has experienced multiple episodes, a healthcare professional may diagnose them with epilepsy.
4. Abnormal movements or behaviors
These atypical movements or behaviors may manifest in various ways and provide valuable clues for early detection and intervention. Here are key points to consider:
- Abnormal movements: tics, tremors, jerky movements
- Atypical behaviors: repetitive behaviors, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, impulsivity or hyperactivity
- Connection to neurological disorders: Abnormal movements or behaviors can indicate underlying neurological conditions. For example:
- Tourette syndrome
- Movement disorders
- Neurodevelopmental disorders
5. Persistent headaches
While occasional headaches are common and often benign, persistent or recurrent headaches that interfere with a child’s daily activities should be evaluated by a healthcare professional . Here are signs to watch out for:
- Type of headaches: There are different types of headaches that children may experience, including:
- Tension headaches
- Cluster headaches
- Duration and frequency: Persistent headaches in children typically refer to headaches that occur frequently or last for an extended period. These headaches may occur daily, several times a week, or last for hours or days.
- Associated symptoms: Along with persistent headaches, children may experience other symptoms that can provide valuable diagnostic information, like:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Aura or prodromal symptoms (visual disturbances, such as seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines)
6. Sensory processing issues
When a child has difficulties with sensory processing, it can impact their ability to effectively process and integrate sensory stimuli, leading to atypical responses.
Children with sensory processing difficulties may experience challenges in one or more sensory areas:
- Tactile sensitivity: heightened sensitivity to touch, resulting in discomfort or avoidance of certain textures, fabrics, or sensations.
- Auditory sensitivity: hypersensitive to sound, finding everyday noises overwhelming or distressing.
- Visual sensitivity: sensitivity to light, glare, or specific visual patterns or stimuli.
- Proprioceptive and vestibular sensitivity: coordination, balance, or body awareness challenges.
Sensory processing issues can be associated with neurological disorders like ADHD, ASD, and SPD. Children may exhibit over- or under-responsiveness, motor coordination difficulties, and emotional and behavioral impacts.
7. Communication difficulties
Communication encompasses various aspects, including speech, language, and social interaction . When a child experiences challenges in these areas, there may be an underlying neurological condition.
A speech and language development delay is a significant sign of communication difficulties. Children may exhibit the following signs:
- Begin speaking later than expected, with a limited vocabulary or difficulty forming words and sentences.
- Difficulty acquiring new words or using a wide range of vocabulary to express themselves
- Struggle with articulating sounds and pronouncing words correctly
- Difficulty using appropriate grammar and sentence structure, resulting in simplified or incorrect speech patterns
Communication difficulties involve receptive language (understanding spoken language) and expressive language (expressing thoughts and ideas). Signs may include:
- Difficulty understanding and carrying out spoken instructions or responding appropriately
- Limited use of language, reduced ability to express their needs, thoughts, or feelings through language
- Difficulty with maintaining conversations, turn-taking, and understanding social cues during interactions
Some children with communication difficulties may struggle with nonverbal communication skills, such as:
- Difficulty making and maintaining eye contact during social interactions
- Exhibiting reduced use of gestures, such as pointing, waving, or nodding, to communicate or express themselves.
- Have difficulty conveying or interpreting facial expressions, affecting their ability to understand and respond to emotions
How do you treat neurological problems?
Various strategies and therapies are available to support your child’s development and well-being in these situations. These interventions aim to address specific challenges associated with the disorder and help your child reach their full potential.
When you observe warning signs of a potential neurological disorder in your child, you must seek professional help for accurate evaluation, diagnosis, and appropriate interventions.
The specific therapies and interventions recommended will depend on the child’s needs and may include:
- Occupational therapy
- Speech-language therapy
- Physical therapy
- Behavioral therapy
- Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
- Assistive devices and technologies
- Home-based strategies
Parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals can take proactive steps to seek appropriate evaluations and interventions by being aware of these warning signs.
Early detection and intervention can significantly impact a child’s development, improving their outcomes and quality of life.
Supporting your child involves a multidisciplinary approach, including therapeutic interventions, educational support, home-based strategies, and collaboration with professionals and educators. These are all key elements in helping your child reach their full potential.
Remember, every child is unique, and progress may vary. Celebrate even the most minor achievements along the journey, and communicate openly with the professionals in your child’s care.