Behavior or Disability? How to Tell the Difference

Could my 18-month old son’s biting be a sign of a disability?  Is my 2-year old daughter’s hitting something more than just frustration and being a toddler?  If my almost 4 year-old isn’t potty trained, could something be wrong? Is it a behavior or a disability?

Often the line between a behavior issue and a disability is not clear or easily defined, which can be challenging for a parent. As the community resource for developmental disabilities, we are here to help you navigate the process. Let us guide you to address concerning behaviors or offer the early intervention supports you and your child need to be successful.  

Behavior vs. Disability 

“It is important to remember that children do not intentionally do things to make their parents or caretakers angry,” says Tina Overturff, Summit DD’s Early Intervention Manager. Overturff recommends evaluating your expectations.  Is what you are asking possible of the age range of your child?

Then, think about the vocabulary and sentence structure you are using.  Is it something that your child can easily understand?  Are you using short sentences with words that your child is familiar with?

Next, are you using positive reinforcement to solicit a change in behavior?  Positive reinforcement can come in the form of praise, hugs, sticker charts or other ways in which you know your child places value or excitement.

As an example, if your 18-month old son is biting, it is possible that it is a sensory issue and commensurate with his age range.  Communicating with him by saying “teeth are for eating” or “nice teeth” and having some patience in waiting for him to change his behavior and praising him with big hugs and lots of excitement for not biting, is what may fix the problem.  If you work through all those steps and still find he is biting, it may be something more and time to talk to your pediatrician or reach out to us. Let Summit DD be your resource.

What to do if you suspect your child may have a disability

If you suspect your child’s behavior is tied to a disability, we encourage you to take the free Ages and Stages Questionnaire, 3rd edition, or ASQ-3.

A Social and Emotional Screening, ASQ: SE is also valuable in helping parents determine if there is a potential delay in your child’s emotional or social development. Your answers are kept confidential and are evaluated within five days of the test. Once you receive your results in the mail, we encourage you to make an appointment with your pediatrician and contact us for help in navigating assistance or support.

If your child is three years or younger, we will get you in touch with an Ohio Early Intervention Service Coordinator.

If your child is more than three years old, contact us and we can help you discuss concerns and options with your school district.

Take the ASQ-3 now

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