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Understanding and Supporting Developmental Disorders:
Creating an Environment Comfortable for All

Tomu Otsuki
Associate Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

1. Introduction

The term “developmental disorders” first came to people’s attention in the educational field such as elementary schools and junior high schools. The results of the “National Survey of Children Enrolled in Regular Classes Who Require Special Educational Support” conducted in 2002 by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology showed that 6.3% of children enrolled in regular classes needed special educational support for potential developmental disorders. These results presented educationalists with the challenge of how to support such children within the school education system. More recently, the discussion has moved on to include support for those who are so-called adults. In this way, the community focusing on the term “developmental disorders” is expanding year by year, and their awareness is growing. Nevertheless, awareness among ordinary people is still at the “I’ve only heard of it” stage. In this article, I would like to briefly explain what developmental disorders are and what kind of support they call for.

2. What are development disorders?

The Act on Support for Persons with Development Disabilities passed in 2004 defines developmental disorders as “autism, Asperger’s syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders, learning disability, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other similar brain function disorders, whose symptoms normally appear from a young age.” Although these disorders are accompanied by characteristic cognitive difficulties that are likely to present challenges in daily life, what they share is a lack of any delay in intellectual development in many cases. What is mean here by “cognition” is, simply put, the process of seeing and hearing external information and then thinking about it and acting on it by oneself. This is an extremely important function for us to live in our society. People with developmental disorders have disabilities in this respect and are therefore prone to various day-to-day difficulties and things going badly.

3. Why do things go badly for them?

At school, for example, a child with a developmental disorder often cannot do the same things as, or does things differently from, their classmates. So, whenever a problem occurs with that child, other people mistakenly put it down to the developmental disorder, linking the individual’s lack of success solely to their disability. Of course there are some things that children with such disorder are not good at, but is it right to blame their disorder as the sole cause of things going badly for them? Let’s look at it from a slightly different angle. Take an example that a physically disabled person who uses a wheelchair is unable to take a train because the nearest station does not have an elevator. What is the reason for that person being unable to take a train? Is it only the personal characteristics of not having the use of their legs? In this example, it is easy to identify another factor. The lack of an elevator at the station (an environmental factor) also seems to have an impact. When considering such problems, rather than simply focusing on the individual we have to see the big picture that includes the effect of the surrounding environment. This is the same approach we should take when considering the day-to-day difficulties faced by those with developmental disorders.

4. Creating the right environment is the key

If a person with a developmental disorder shows signs of being unable to adapt well in society, factors within the surrounding environment also need to be looked at. For children who find it difficult to remember information they have heard, for example, being told verbally by a teacher at going home time what to bring the next day may not stick in their memory, and they are likely to forget to bring something because they are unable to write it down in the correspondence notebook. Underlying this problem of forgetting to bring things is a combination of both personal factors (difficulty in handling aural information) and environmental factors (the teacher issuing a verbal notice.) The key to offering support, therefore, is to adjust the environmental factors to make things easier for a child with a developmental disorder to handle too. In this case, for instance, the teacher could support the child by writing what to bring tomorrow on the blackboard. To put it another way, if the environment is arranged to suit someone with a developmental disorder, any personal factors will cease to be a problem. Such environmental considerations are not only beneficial for people with developmental disorders, but also make things easier for most other people to understand. This is the same as an elevator installed in a station creating a more comfortable environment not only for the physically disabled but also for mothers with strollers and elderly people who walk with a stick. But the cognitive difficulties faced by people with developmental disorders are often difficult to understand for other people. That is why it is important for us on the environment side to have proper knowledge about developmental disorders.

Tomu Otsuki
Associate Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Otsuki was born in Chiba prefecture in 1980. He graduated from the College of Human Sciences, Second Cluster of Colleges, University of Tsukuba. He then gained a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education, Niigata University and a doctoral degree from the Graduate School of General Human Sciences, Hiroshima International University. He served on the Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University as an assistant professor from 2008 and full-time lecturer from 2010 before taking up his current post as an associate professor in 2013. His area of specialization is behavior analysis, especially research into the relationship between language and psychological and behavioral aspects. He also practices as a clinical psychologist (in clinical and applied behavior analysis). His main publications include: The ACT Handbook [ACT handobukku] (contributor, Seiwa Shoten) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition (translator, Seiwa Shoten).