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How to Become a Developmental Disability Nurse

NurseJournal Staff
Updated February 10, 2023
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    Learn about how to become a developmental disability nurse (DDN) and what work is like as a DDN.
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    This guide tells you how to become a developmental disability nurse (DDN), the required education, certification options, and what work is like for a DDN.

    Being a DDN requires patience and empathy for patients and their family members, as well as strong clinical and communication skills.

    What Is a Developmental Disability Nurse?

    DDNs work with patients who have developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, or similar cognitive impairments. Disability nurses work in schools, hospitals, care facilities, and other healthcare or specialized settings.

    Regardless of setting, a developmental disability nurse works toward supporting their patients’ positive control of their lives and their physical health.

    Being a DDN is demanding because it requires a particular knowledge base on developmental conditions. Many patients with developmental disabilities also have complex healthcare needs, but being a DDN can be a very fulfilling career choice.

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    Steps to Become a Developmental Disability Nurse

    Most developmental disability nurses have a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), given the complexity of the population’s healthcare needs. Some DDNs do have a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN).

    Higher-level positions often require certification as a developmental disability nurse, a master of science in nursing, or both. Nurse practitioners and those with a doctorate might have an advantage in seeking higher-level administrative roles.

    Not all BSN curriculums include developmental disability nursing, so before applying to a school, check its curriculum and see if it offers clinical placement in settings that serve people with disabilities.

    Developmental Disability Nurse Schooling

    One of the most common questions about how to become a developmental disability nurse is how long it takes. The answer will depend on your background, what kind of degree you earn, and whether you plan to pursue certification.

    BSN Degree

    You will need either an ADN or a BSN degree to take the NCLEX-RN. The ADN takes two years; the BSN takes four years. Most employers, higher-level positions, and graduate programs require a BSN.

    • Admission Requirements: BSN programs require a high school diploma or GED certificate. Most require a 3.0 GPA or higher, references, and at least some courses in math and science, particularly biology and chemistry.
    • Program Curriculum: Nursing school includes classes in nursing fundamentals, health assessment, medical-surgical nursing, mental health, community health, maternal and child health, nursing research, and leadership. Students also participate in clinical rotations, actively learning alongside nurses at work.
    • Time to Complete: BSN programs usually take four years, but if you have an ADN or other transferable credits, you can finish a program sooner. ADN-to-BSN programs usually take two years.
    • Skills Learned: You will learn how to assess patients and administer medications, communicate with and educate patients and their families (especially important for a DDN), advocate for patients’ health, and identify and follow evidence-based practices.

    Developmental Disability Nurse Credentials

    Developmental disability nurses must have a state license to practice nursing. While licensing requirements vary by state, all nurses must graduate from an accredited program and pass the NCLEX-RN. Government bodies issue licenses, which are legally required to practice, while other organizations award specialty certifications.


    Employers may require a certification like the Certified Developmental Disabilities Nurse certification, but unless it is part of a state license, nurses can legally practice without one. Certifications are important because they demonstrate that an RN has expertise in a certain area. Associations and professional boards manage certifications. Professionals usually maintain certification through continuing education.


    To be a developmental disability nurse, you must earn an RN license by graduating from an accredited nursing school and passing the NCLEX-RN. This is legally required to practice nursing. To renew your license, you will need to participate in continuing education opportunities.

    Working as a Developmental Disability Nurse

    Once you graduate, you will have your alumni network and connections from your clinicals, which should help you find a job. You can find listings on job boards and on the websites of places you would like to work. The median RN salary in 2020 was $75,330, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but, as you can see on ZipRecruiter, salaries vary by location, largely based on cost of living and demand.

    The following provides common work settings and responsibilities for DDNs.

    Becoming a Developmental Disability Nurse: FAQs

    How do you become a DDN?

    To become a developmental disability nurse, you will need to go to nursing school, pass the NCLEX-RN, and apply for and maintain a license through continuing education. You may also want to pursue certification, though it is not a legal requirement.

    What do developmental disability nurses do?

    DDNs provide and oversee nursing care for adults and children. Because there is relatively little research on evidence-based practice, DDNs need to exercise independent judgment more than other nurses. They also educate others who work with people with developmental disabilities and family members about helping to build and maintain their health.

    What kind of nurse works with kids with developmental disabilities?

    Pediatric nurses and developmental disability nurses both work with kids with developmental disabilities, but DDNs specialize in this population. This kind of nursing requires patience, flexibility, empathy, excellent communications skills, and respect for their patients.

    Can nurses specialize in autism?

    Yes. For example, the University of Arizona College of Nursing offers a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder certificate for nurse practitioners. Nurses who specialize in autism can work in schools or for organizations that provide support for people on the autism spectrum. They can also provide care at homes or in residential programs. As awareness and resources for autism grows, nurses who specialize in autism will be in demand.

    Learn More About Developmental Disability Nursing

    Reviewed by:

    Portrait of Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

    Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

    Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC, is a nursing professional with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience. Gleason currently teaches as an assistant professor of nursing within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches graduate students. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.

    Gleason is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners here.

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