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Disability Rates Among Children Continue To Rise, Especially in One Category

Between 2001 and 2011 there was a 21 percent increase in disabilities classified as neurodevelopmental or mental health-related in nature in children.

That’s according to an analysis from the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. This is in contrast to physical health-related disabilities in children – that rate dropped 12 percent over the same time period.

“Over the 10 year study period, what we found was a nearly 16 percent increase in the prevalence of disability among children, so that equates to about a million more children having disabilities than about 10 years ago,” said Dr. Amy Houtrow, lead author of the study and chief of the Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine at Children’s.

Neurodevelopmental disabilities include autism, learning disabilities, intellectual impairment, ADHD and epilepsy.

The increases were seen, particularly, among children in more socially advantaged households. Statistically, children living in poverty have the highest rates of disability. Over the last decade there has been a 28.4 percent increase in disability diagnosis among children living in families at or above 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

“We think one of the reasons that rise happened is, in part, because those children and their families have better access to achieving diagnosis and then treatment, so they have better access to health services," Houtrow said.

Other reasons could be a shift in diagnostic criteria, overall increases in rates of certain problems including autism, increased awareness of conditions and the need for a specific diagnosis to receive services such as early intervention.

Researchers tracked trends by studying data from the National Health Interview Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2001 and 2011, and also by interviewing parents.

“We need to be more aware that more and more children are experiencing disabilities, and these disabilities have shifted over time to include more neurodevelopmental and mental health problems,” Houtrow said. “That means that as a healthcare system, we need to be poised to give services, provide information and recommend treatment to help children be as successful as possible.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Heal and the Department of Health and Human Services and appears in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics.