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Mental and developmental disabilities in kids on the rise

CHICAGO (AP) — 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 found.

Disadvantaged kids still bear a disproportionate burden.

Autism walk
Autism walk fundraiser. (Andrew D. Bernstein, Autism Speaks via Getty Images)

The increases may partly reflect more awareness and recognition that conditions, including autism, require a specific diagnosis to receive special services, the researchers said.

Meantime, physical disabilities declined, as other studies have suggested.

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 2000-2011 government-conducted health surveys. Parents were asked about disabilities from chronic conditions including 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.

Results were published online Monday in Pediatrics.

Overall, disabilities of any kind affected 8 percent children by 2010-2011, compared to close to 7 percent a decade earlier. For children living in poverty, the rate was 10 percent at the end of the period, versus about 6 percent of kids from wealthy families.

The overall trend reflects a 16 percent increase, while disabilities in kids 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 likely include autism although that condition isn’t identified in the analyzed data.

Declines in asthma-related problems and kids’ injuries accounted for much of the overall 12 percent drop in physical disabilities. Better asthma control and treatment and more use of bike helmets, car seats and seat-belts may have contributed to that trend, said lead author Dr. Amy Houtrow, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist at the University of Pittsburgh.

The developmental disability increases echo what Dr. Kenneth Norwood, a developmental pediatrician in Charlottesville, Virginia sees in his medical practice.

“I’m routinely backed up six months for new patients,” said Norwood, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Children with Disabilities.

Norwood thinks there is more awareness of these conditions and that some, including autism, are truly rising in prevalence. Autism is thought to result from genetic flaws interacting with many other factors. Some studies have suggested these may include parents’ age and prenatal infections.


American Academy of Pediatrics:

AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner can be reached at

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