Nurse Types / Developmental Disability Nurse
Developmental disability nurses (DDNs), sometimes called special needs nurses, care for patients with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and Down Syndrome are among the most common conditions nurses handle daily.
All nurses must have compassion and empathy for their patients to be successful in their fields. However, DDNs deal with some of the most vulnerable patients in the healthcare system. You’ll need to be caring and patient to provide the best patient outcomes.
If you’re looking for a challenging nursing career where you’ll make a difference in the lives of your patients, you may want to consider becoming a developmental disability nurse.
In this article, you’ll discover:
- What is a developmental disability nurse?
- What do developmental disability nurses do?
- Where do developmental disability nurses work?
- What are closely related fields?
- How do you become a developmental disability nurse in 3 steps?
- What are additional requirements of developmental disability nurses?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for developmental disability nurses?
- Developmental disability nurse FAQs
What is a developmental disability nurse?
A developmental disability nurse is a registered nurse who specializes in the care of patients with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Most DDNs hold their RN licensure. However, some healthcare settings only require licensed practical nurses (LPNs) to fill these nursing roles.
You’ll spend a large portion of your day educating patients and their caregivers about their conditions and the best ways to manage them. As an essential member of your patient’s healthcare team, you’re responsible for providing bedside care and assisting with other daily living needs.
Qualities of a successful developmental disability nurse
Empathy and patience are two of the qualities most successful DDNs possess. It’s important to remember that your actions have a significant impact on the emotional and physical well-being of your patients.
What do developmental disability nurses do?
Your main job is to give your patients an improved quality of life. Another crucial part of the job involves maintaining their health and well-being by following the guidance of your patient’s healthcare team.
As a DDNs, you’ll spend a large part of your workday analyzing your patients’ behaviors and monitoring health indicators that can affect their treatment plans.
You can expect to assist your patients with basic bodily care, communication, and physical activity needed to maintain their health.
A day in the life of a developmental disability nurse
Depending on where you work, your typical day may not be the same as that of other developmental disability nurses. However, most nurses in this specialty field spend at least a portion of their workweeks consulting with other members of their patients’ care teams.
The rest of the time can be spent helping your patients with daily living tasks, including personal care that includes:
- Bathing and grooming
- Making meals
- Social outings
If your patients take medications, you’ll administer those and monitor for any reactions that would require intervention by the medical team.
Common conditions treated by developmental disability nurses
Some of the common conditions you can expect to treat in this role include:
Where do developmental disability nurses work?
DDNs work in a variety of care settings. Basically, you can work anywhere patients with developmental and intellectual disabilities receive care.
Some of the most common healthcare settings include:
- Home healthcare. Some travel nursing agencies provide in-home care for individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities. In this role, you’ll visit patients in their home setting, monitoring their well-being and providing them with any daily living assistance needed.
- Hospitals. Communicating with caregivers, monitoring your patients’ well-being, and performing bedside care are among the tasks you can expect when working in this healthcare setting.
- Schools. As many public and private schools work toward more equitable and inclusive environments, developmental disability nurses can help achieve this goal. You’ll be responsible for assisting students with developmental or intellectual disabilities with their healthcare needs during the school day.
What are closely related fields?
If you’re not sure about a career as a DDNs – but you like the idea of helping those with special needs – some similar fields may be of interest instead. Some of your options include:
- Occupational therapists help patients with developmental disabilities learn how to perform daily living tasks. They also teach caregivers how to help persons with disabilities ensure they live happy, healthy lives.
- Physical therapists work with individuals with a developmentally disability to help them improve body movements and reduce pain associated with their conditions.
Expert advice from nurses like you
How do you become a developmental disability nurse in 3 steps?
If you’ve decided to pursue a career in this field, you can follow these 3 steps to make your dream a reality.
Step 1 – Become a registered nurse
Some healthcare settings may hire LPNs to work in this nursing specialty. Most require you to hold an RN licensure. So, the first step in the process is to become a registered nurse.
If you’re an RN with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), you technically qualify. However, you may want to pursue your BSN degree, as most healthcare settings prefer it.
Earn a BSN degree
Earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) opens doors to career advancement. It also gives you greater freedom in choosing some roles within the developmental disability nursing specialty. If you’re already an RN, you can opt for the RN-to-BSN program to fast-track your degree.
Do you already have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field? You qualify for enrollment in an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) degree program.
Pass the NCLEX-RN exam
Once you complete the required education to earn your bachelor’s degree, the final step toward getting your RN licensure is to pass the NCLEX-RN exam. There is one purpose for this test: to evaluate your competency as an entry-level RN.
Your exam can have anywhere between 75 and 265 questions. If you fail the first time, you can retake it after a 45-day waiting period.
Step 2 – Accumulate experience
Now that you have your RN licensure, the next step on your journey is to gain relevant experience. Look for RN positions where you can work with patients with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
You’ll need at least 4,000 hours of clinical experience in a five-year period to qualify for developmental disability nursing certification.
Helpful skills and experience
You’ll be dealing with some patients who are nonverbal, so finding alternative methods of communication is a must in this nursing specialty. Learning how to read body language also can be a handy skill.
Other abilities you may find useful in your role:
- Comprehensive knowledge of developmental disabilities. Since your nursing role is specialized, you’ll need to understand the needs of your patients. You must be comfortable offering support while administering bedside care.
- Extensive understanding of health and safety protocol. All nurses must keep themselves and their patients protected against the transfer of disease through sanitary practices. This can be especially challenging in this field.
- Strong research skills. You can coordinate better care and offer more in-depth education to your patients and their caregivers if you know how to research specific developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Changing specialty to a developmental disability nurse
Changing your nursing specialty to a developmental disability nurse requires the right level of education and on-the-job experience. If you’ve worked as an RN for a few years, you’ll want to take some continuing education courses to prepare for the change.
You’ll also need to make sure you have the required practice hours for certification if you plan to pursue it.
Step 3 – Obtain certifications
Some state licensing boards require nurses to hold Certified Developmental Disabilities Nurse credentials to practice. Even in states where it’s not a licensing requirement, some employers may prefer it.
Getting certified proves your expertise as a developmental disability nurse. Once you have your credentials, you’ll have to complete CEUs to maintain them.
What are additional requirements of developmental disability nurses?
All RNs must keep their knowledge of nursing best practices updated to maintain their licenses. Some states mandate continuing education credits as part of this process. You can check with your state board of licensing to verify what you’ll need.
Even if your state doesn’t require CEUs, you may want to stay up to date on the latest in disability healthcare practices and technology to improve patient outcomes.
What are the salary and career outlooks for developmental disability nurses?
Like all RNs, the salary and career outlooks for DDNs is promising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a growth rate of 6% between 2021 and 2031.
Developmental disability nurses can expect to earn an average annual salary of $61,018. The average annual salary for all RNs is $82,750.
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Working as a developmental disability nurse can be demanding but rewarding. You’ll have the opportunity to work with patients who depend on your compassion and knowledge of their conditions to improve their daily lives.
If you want to talk to other nurses currently working in this nursing specialty, you can join the Incredible Health community to ask questions and get advice about the profession.
Developmental disability nurses have many options for career advancement. You can pursue your Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) licensure, which gives you more autonomy in your role.
You must first obtain your RN licensure. A bachelor’s degree is recommended, as many employers and some state licensing boards now require it to work in this nursing specialty. After that, you gain valuable experience working as an RN and pursue specialty certifications.
These nurses work with patients who have developmental or intellectual disabilities. They can work with them in their homes or in special care facilities. Some nurses also work in hospitals providing bedside care to patients with disabilities.
The average national wage is $61,018, according to the BLS. Some cities across the U.S. pay more than twice the national average to attract only the best and brightest in this nursing specialty.
Yes, absolutely! Some developmental disability nurses prefer to work with pediatric patients only, while others may want to focus on one specific type of disability like autism. You can customize your nursing role to fit your career aspirations.
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- Registered Nurses. bls.gov. Accessed August 9, 2022.
- Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. cdc.gov. Accessed August 9, 2022.
- Spina Bifida Association. spinabifidaassociation.org. Accessed August 9, 2022.
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