The Truth Behind Clumsy Child Syndrome: Developmental Coordination Disorder

Written by Janet Barwell | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Children normally develop the ability to sit up, stand, walk, and talk at predictable ages. When they are late in achieving these milestones, it may be due to a developmental problem. Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is one such condition.

DCD is a lack of coordination between your mental intentions and your ability to get your body to carry out those intentions. For example, you might think, “I need to tie my shoe.” However, your brain does not properly send the instructions for shoe tying to your hands and feet. Your brain knows how to tie shoes, but your hands just can’t follow your brain’s instructions. The same thing happens when you try to run, jump, write, button a shirt, and many other tasks that most people take for granted.

People with DCD generally have normal intelligence. However, DCD is sometimes called “clumsy child syndrome,” and it may cause others to think that sufferers are inept or unintelligent because they cannot perform basic tasks. The condition can be frustrating and embarrassing, leading to problems with self-esteem and social isolation. Although considered a childhood disorder, the effects of DCD continue into adulthood.

What Causes Developmental Coordination Disorder?

The causes of DCD are not well understood, but researchers believe that it is the result of delayed brain development. People with DCD generally have no other medical issues that can explain the disorder. About six percent of school-age children have DCD, and it is more common in boys than girls. In some cases, DCD can occur with other disorders, such as mental retardation or attention deficit-disorder, though these conditions are not linked.

What are the Symptoms of Developmental Coordination Disorder?

Signs of DCD can appear soon after birth. Newborns may have trouble learning how to suck and swallow milk. Toddlers may be slow to learn to roll over, sit, crawl, walk, and talk.

As you enter school, symptoms of the disorder may become more noticeable. Symptoms of DCD may include:

  • an unsteady walk
  • difficulty going down stairs
  • dropping objects
  • running into others
  • frequent tripping
  • difficulty tying shoes, putting on clothes, and other self-care activities
  • difficulty performing school activities such as writing, coloring, and using scissors

People with DCD may become self-conscious and withdraw from sports or social activities. However, limited exercise can lead to poor muscle tone and weight gain. Maintaining social involvement and good physical condition is essential for overcoming the challenges of DCD.

How is Developmental Coordination Disorder Diagnosed?

DCD is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms may be confused with those of other conditions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) lists four criteria that must be met for a diagnosis of DCD:

  • The child shows delays in reaching motor milestones.
  • The condition significantly interferes with activities of daily living and/or academic performance.
  • The symptoms cannot be linked to any other motor or brain disorders.
  • If mental retardation is also present, the effects of DCD are separate from those seen among the mentally retarded.

How is Developmental Coordination Disorder Treated?

DCD is treated with a long-term program of education, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills training to help you adapt to the disorder.

  • Physical education can help you develop coordination, balance, and better communication between your brain and your body. Individual sports such as swimming or bicycling may offer better opportunities to build motor skills than team sports. Daily exercise is essential if you have DCD in order to train your body and brain to work together and to reduce your risk of obesity.
  • Occupational therapy can help you master daily activities. Occupational therapists know lots of techniques for helping people perform difficult tasks. Your occupational therapist can also work with school officials to identify changes that will help you to succeed in school, such using a computer instead of hand writing assignments.
  • A Lifecourse Approach is a new program for helping people with DCD, pioneered by the CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research in Canada. The Lifecourse Approach combines physical and skills training with classes that teach you how to become an advocate for all disabled individuals. You can learn how to educate others about the needs of the disabled and how to ask for the adaptations you need to succeed.

What is to Be Expected in the Long Term?

Unfortunately, children with DCD generally continue to experience symptoms as adults. Proper training and education in motor skills can help you to lead a normal and fulfilling life. Your outlook depends on how well you adapt to DCD and overcome its limitations.

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Show Sources

  • Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD). (n.d.). University of Wales, Newport School of Education. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from
  • Henderson, S. (2006). ESRC Seminar Series on Developmental Coordination Disorder as a Specific Learning Difficulty. Economic and Social Research Council. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from
  • Lingham, R. (2010, November 1). The Association Between Developmental Coordination Disorder and Other Developmental Traits. Pediatrics, 126 No. 5, e1109 -e1118 . Retrieved April 30, 2012, from
  • Overview of DCD. (n.d.). CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research at McMaster University. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from
  • Visser, J. (November 2003). Developmental coordination disorder: a review of research on subtypes and comorbidities. Human Movement Science, 22 Issues 4-5, 479-493. Retrieved April 30, 2012.

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