The main symptom of childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) is a loss of skills a child previously had. This could include speech, social, movement, and bowel control skills.

Children with CDD may also engage in repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, and have difficulty playing or sustaining friendships.

CDD is a rare condition that many view as part of the autism spectrum. It differs from other forms of autism because of its late onset, and it can develop rapidly.

Read on to learn more about CDD symptoms, including examples of CDD behaviors, the differences between CDD versus autism, and treatment.

A child with childhood disintegrative disorder sitting on their bedroom floor, seen from behind.Share on Pinterest
Maria Manco/Stocksy

According to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th edition (ICD-10), the symptoms of CDD include:

  • typical development in communication, play, social skills, and movement up until the age of at least 2 years
  • a significant loss of previously acquired skills in at least two of the following areas:
    • language
    • play
    • social skills
    • bowel or bladder control
    • motor skills
  • changes in social functioning in at least two of the following areas:
    • reciprocal social interactions
    • communication
    • restrictive, repetitive, or stereotyped behaviors, activities, interests, or mannerisms
    • general loss of interest in the world around them
  • the symptoms are not the result of other conditions, such as aphasia, selective mutism, mental health conditions, or Rett syndrome

The characteristic symptom of CDD is a loss of skills that a child previously had. The age this occurs can vary, but usually, it is after the age of 3 years.

Before symptom onset, many children with CDD already have some delays in their development in comparison to others their age. Some notice when their abilities begin to change — they may ask their caregiver what is happening.

A 2017 study notes that many children with CDD also experience episodes of anxiety before the regression, and some appear to have hallucinations.

The following examples represent the types of behaviors that a child with CDD might exhibit. However, it is important to note that CDD is not the only explanation for them.

A child with CDD might:

  • go from speaking in phrases or sentences to speaking in fragments or not speaking much at all
  • start having difficulty understanding what others are saying
  • find it difficult to join in with conversations or games, or lose interest in them
  • start avoiding eye contact
  • begin disliking physical touch
  • lose coordination, which may affect their ability to ride a bike or use play equipment
  • begin walking differently
  • lose toilet training skills
  • have difficulty getting or staying asleep

The main distinction between CDD and other forms of autism is that the symptoms have a late onset. Children learn skills and reach developmental milestones but then appear to lose those skills again, sometimes completely.

Autistic children with other forms of autism can also experience regression, but this usually happens before the age of 2, which is much earlier than in CDD. The regression also tends not to be as severe or extensive.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 5th revised edition (DSM-5-TR) groups several diagnoses that were previously separate under the label of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including CDD.

However, there is some debate in the scientific community about whether CDD is a form of autism or whether it has a separate underlying cause.

A 2019 review of previous research notes there are possible genetic differences between those with CDD and those with autism. CDD also comes with more mental health symptoms and has stronger associations with seizures and epilepsy.

Research into the similarities and differences between CDD and autism is ongoing.

Doctors may begin diagnosing CDD by asking a caregiver questions about their child’s symptoms. They may also observe the child’s behavior or ask them questions to see how they respond. If the doctor has seen the child before, they may notice the change in their abilities.

Next, they may request tests to rule out other potential causes. This could vary depending on the child’s symptoms, but may include:

  • blood tests to look for infection, inflammation, or other conditions
  • imaging scans of the brain
  • an electroencephalogram, which records electrical activity in the brain
  • urine tests

If there is no reversible cause, the doctor may refer the child for an assessment for autism or CDD.

There is no cure for CDD. Treatment involves supporting the child and their caregivers. Doctors recommend that children with CDD receive treatment as early as possible.

This may involve:

  • Family education: This involves teaching caregivers and families about CDD and what the child may need.
  • Behavioral therapy: This therapy aims to teach those with CDD self-care skills and social skills.
  • Speech language therapy: This may help children improve communication skills or learn alternative ways of communicating.
  • Occupational therapy: This aims to help the child live as independently as possible by teaching them to use assistive devices and equipment. Occupational therapists can also advise on ways to change the home and the household routine to make things easier.
  • Physical therapy: This may help some children to improve their motor skills.
  • Sensory therapy: This therapy involves giving those with CDD sensory stimulation via texture, sound, light, and other approaches. It may help reduce symptoms.
  • Medications: There are no specific medications for CDD, but doctors may try drugs to help with specific symptoms, such as insomnia or anxiety.

Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) symptoms can include a loss of communication, social, or self-care skills that a child previously learned before the age of 3.

The child may go from speaking in phrases or sentences to only speaking in fragments. They may lose interest in the world around them and develop repetitive behaviors. It has similarities with autism, although CDD develops later than autism typically does and causes a more severe regression.

Treatment focuses on easing symptoms, teaching skills the child has lost, and helping them live as independently as possible.