Skip to main content

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder



Causes and symptoms








Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) is a developmental disorder that resembles autism . It is characterized by at least two years of normal development, followed by loss of language, social skills, and motor skills before age ten. Other names for childhood disintegrative disorder are Heller’s syndrome, dementia infantilis, and disintegrative psychosis


Thomas Heller, an Austrian educator, first described childhood disintegrative disorder in 1908. It is a complex disorder that affects many different areas of the child’sdevelopment. It is grouped with the pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs) and is related to the better known and more common disorder of autism.

Initially CDD was considered strictly a medical disorder and was believed to have identifiable medical causes. After researchers reviewed the reported cases of CDD, however, no specific medical or neurological cause was found to account for all occurrences of the disorder. For that reason, CDD was included in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , or DSM-IV, in 1994. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is the standard reference work consulted by mental health professionals in the United States and Canada.

Causes and symptoms


The cause of childhood disintegrative disorder is unknown. Research findings suggest, however, that it may arise in the neurobiology of the brain . About half the children diagnosed with CDD have an abnormal electroencephalogram (EEG). EEGs measure the electrical activity in the brain generated by nerve transmission (brain waves). CDD is also sometimes associated with seizures , another indication that the neurobiology of the brain may be involved. CDD is occasionally associated with such diagnosed medical disorders of the brain as leukodystrophy and Schilder’s disease; but no one disease, brain defect, disorder, or condition can account for all symptoms and all cases. Research is hampered by the rarity of this disorder.


Children with CDD have at least two years of normal development in all areas—language understanding, speech, skill in the use of large and small muscles, and social development. After this period of normal growth, the child begins to lose the skills he or she has acquired. This loss usually takes place between ages three and four, but it can happen any time up to age ten.

The loss of skills may be gradual, but more often occurs rapidly over a period of six to nine months. The transition may begin with unexplained changes in behavior, such as anxiety , unprovoked anger, or agitation. Behavioral changes are followed by loss of communication, social, and motor skills. Children may stop speaking or revert to single words. They often lose bowel or bladder control and withdraw into themselves, rejecting social interaction with adults or other children. They may perform repetitious activities and often have trouble moving from one activity to the next.

In this way CDD resembles autism. In autism, however, previously acquired skills are not usually lost. According to the Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders, virtually all children with CDD lose speech and social skills. About 90% lose self-help skills (the ability to feed, wash, and toilet themselves); and about the same number develop non-specific overactivity. After a time, the regression stops, but the child does not usually regain the skills that were lost.


CDD is a rare disease, much less common than autism. About one in 100,000 children are thought to have CDD. It is possible, however, that the disorder is underdiagnosed. For a long time, it was thought that CDD occurred equally among boys and girls. Newer research suggests that it is about four times more common in boys, and that many girls who were diagnosed with CDD actually had Rett’s disorder, a disorder that shares many of the symptoms of CDD but occurs almost always in girls.


CDD is most commonly diagnosed when the parents of the affected child consult the pediatrician about the child’s loss of previously acquired skills. The doctor will first give the child a medical examination to rule out epilepsy or other medical conditions. The child’s head may also be x rayed to rule out head trauma or a brain tumor. Following the medical examinations and tests, the child will be referred to a psychiatrist who specializes in treating children and adolescents. The psychiatrist will then make the differential diagnosis of CDD.

To be diagnosed with CDD, a child must show loss or regression in at least two of the areas listed below. Usually regression occurs in more than two areas. These are:

  • receptive language skills (language understanding)
  • expressive language skills (spoken language)
  • social or self-help skills
  • play with peers
  • motor skills
  • bowel or bladder control, if previously established

Children with CDD are unable to start conversations with other people and often do not communicate with nonverbal signals (smiles, gestures, nodding the head, etc.) either. They also lose interest in playing games and in relationships with other people. They may engage in strange repetitive behavior, such as bobbing the head up and down, or other repeatedmovements. These changes must not be caused by a general medical condition or another diagnosed mental disorder.

CDD must be differentiated from autism and such other specific pervasive developmental disorders as Rett’s disease. It also must be differentiated from schizophrenia. One of the differences between CDD and other PDDs is that to be diagnosed with CDD, a child must develop normally for at least two years before loss of skills occurs, and the loss must occur before age ten. Parents’ reports of the child’s development, records in baby books, medical records kept by the child’s pediatrician, and home movies are often used to document normal development through the first two years of life.


Treatment for CDD is very similar to treatment for autism. The emphasis falls on early and intense educational interventions. Most treatment is behavior-based and highly structured. Educating the parents so that they can support the child’streatments at home is usually part of the overall treatment plan. Speech and


Autism —A developmental disability that appears early in life, in which normal brain development is disrupted and social and communication skills are retarded, sometimes severely.

Dementia infantilis —Another term for childhood disintegrative disorder, used more frequently in the European medical literature. The Latin name literally means “early childhood dementia.”

Leukodystrophy —A disturbance of the white matter of the brain.

Schilder’s disease —A disturbance of the white matter of the brain that causes blindness, deafness, and mental deterioration.

Sensory integration therapy —A treatment that was originally designed for children with autism. Sensory integration therapy is often performed by occupational or physical therapists; its goal is to help the child with autism or CDD process information acquired through the senses (hearing, touch, taste, and smell as well as sight) more effectively.

language therapy, occupational therapy, social skills development, and sensory integration therapy may all be used according to the needs of the individual child

Families with a child who has CDD often find themselves highly stressed. Practical demands on care-givers are high, and CDD takes an emotional toll on family members. Finding appropriate providers with experience delivering services for a child with CDD is sometimes difficult, especially outside large cities. Support groups for families can help reduce their isolation and frustration. Because CDD is rare, autism support groups and organizations include families of children with CDD in their services.


The prognosis for children with CDD is very poor; it is worse than the prognosis for children with autism. Once skills are lost, they are not usually regained. Only about 20% of children diagnosed with the disorder reacquire the ability to speak in sentences. Most adults with CDD remain dependent on full-time caregivers or are institutionalized.


Since the causes of CDD are unknown, there are no known ways to prevent this disorder.



American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. text revised. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Hales, Robert E., Stuart C. Yudofsky, and John A. Talbot. The American Psychiatric Press Textbook of Psychiatry. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 2000.

Sadock, Benjamin J., and Virginia A. Sadock, eds. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. 7th edition. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2000.


Autism Society of America. 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 300, Bethesda, MD 20814-3067. (301) 657-0881 or 800-3 AUTISM. <>.

National Association of Rare Disorders (NORD). P.O. Box 8923, New Fairfield, CT 06812-8923. (800) 999-NORD or (203) 746-6518.

Tish Davidson, A.M.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Childhood Disintegrative Disorder." The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health. . 24 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Childhood Disintegrative Disorder." The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health. . (April 24, 2019).

"Childhood Disintegrative Disorder." The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health. . Retrieved April 24, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.