CHICAGO — Disabilities among U.S. children have increased slightly, with a bigger rise in mental and developmental problems in those from wealthier families, a 10-year analysis has found.
Disadvantaged kids still bear a disproportionate burden.
The increases may partly reflect more awareness and recognition that conditions, including autism, require a specific diagnosis to receive special services, the researchers say.
Meantime, physical disabilities declined, as other studies have suggested.
Results of the study, whose lead author was Amy Houtrow, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, were published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
The study is the first to look broadly at the 10-year trend, but the results echo previous studies showing increases in autism, attention problems and other developmental or mental disabilities. It also has long been known that the disadvantaged are more likely to have chronic health problems and lack of access to good health care, which both can contribute to disabilities.
The researchers studied parents’ responses about children from birth through age 17 gathered in government-conducted health surveys from 2000 to 2011. Parents were asked about disabilities including chronic conditions such as hearing or vision problems; bone or muscle ailments; and mental, behavioral or developmental problems that limited kids’ physical abilities or required them to receive early behavioral intervention or special educational services. Nearly 200,000 children were involved.
Overall, disabilities of any kind affected 8 percent of children in 2010-2011, compared with close to 7 percent a decade earlier. For children living in poverty, the rate was 10 percent at the end of the period, compared with about 6 percent of children from wealthy families.
The overall trend reflects a 16 percent increase, while disabilities in children from wealthy families climbed more than 28 percent, the researchers found. The trend was fueled by increases in attention problems, speech problems and other mental or developmental disorders that probably include autism, although that condition isn’t identified in the analyzed data.
Declines in asthma-related problems and children’s injuries accounted for much of the overall 12 percent drop in physical disabilities. Better asthma control and treatment and increased use of bike helmets, car seats and seat belts may have contributed to that trend, said Houtrow, the study’s lead author.