Although physical disabilities have declined among U.S. children, there has been a sharp rise in mental and developmental problems, especially in those from wealthier families, according to a 10-year analysis published in the journal Pediatrics.
Children from poor families, however, still bear the largest burden.
The increases, say the researchers, may be due to a greater overall awareness and recognition that certain conditions, such as autism, require a specific diagnosis to receive special services.
The analysis is the first to look broadly at the 10-year trend but the results confirm what previous studies have found: an increase in autism, attention problems, and other developmental or mental disabilities. The disadvantaged are also more likely to have chronic health problems and limited access to good health care, two factors that contribute to disabilities.
Study author Dr. Amy Houtrow, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, analyzed data from the U.S. National Health Interview Surveys taken in four time periods between 2001 and 2011. Nearly 200,000 children were involved.
Parents answered questions about their children (ages zero to 17) regarding any chronic conditions. These included hearing or vision problems, bone or muscle ailments, and mental, behavioral or developmental problems that have limited their kids’ physical abilities or required them to receive early behavioral intervention or special educational services.
Physical conditions included asthma or breathing problems, vision problems, hearing problems, bone/joint/muscle problems, and injury. Mental/neurodevelopmental conditions included epilepsy or seizures, speech problems, learning disability, ADHD, mental retardation, and other mental/emotional/behavioral problems.
Overall, disabilities of any kind affected eight percent of children in 2010-2011, compared to nearly seven percent a decade earlier. For children living in poverty, the rate was 10 percent at the end of the period; for wealthy families, six percent.
The overall trend shows a 16 percent increase, while disabilities in kids from wealthy families rose more than 28 percent, the researchers found. The trend was led by increases in attention problems, speech problems, and other mental or developmental disorders that likely include autism, although that condition was not identified specifically.
“Declines in asthma-related problems and physical injuries accounted for much of the overall 12 percent drop in physical disabilities. Perhaps this is because of better treatments for asthma and more use of bike helmets, car seats, and seat-belts,” Houtrow said.