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Study: childhood disability, chiefly mental, up 16 percent in US

A major statistical review just presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies found that the number of children with disabilities, as reported by their parents, grew by 16 percent between 2002 and 2010 in the U.S. Moreover, the number of children with physical disabilities declined while the number with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities rose. The rise in disabling mental conditions, the researchers believe, may be due to the increasing rate of autism diagnoses.

The study was performed using data from a survey of parents performed periodically by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2001 through 2002, then again in 2009 through 2010, the National Health Interview Survey polled more than 100,000 U.S. parents with children aged 17 and younger. CDC researchers asked those parents whether any of their children had limitations and, if they did, the origin of those limitations.

The disabilities described by the parents were then divided into three types: physical conditions, mental conditions, and other. Mental conditions included both neurodevelopmental disabilities and childhood mental health problems. Autism was not specifically broken out in the survey.

In the eight-plus years between the two surveys, researchers found, there was a substantial change: the addition of approximately one million children reported by their parents as having limitations or disabilities. The total number of children reported as having a limitation in the 2009-2010 survey was approximately six million.

The increase in parental reports of childhood disabilities does not necessarily mean the children would be unable to work or could qualify for Social Security disability programs.

Significantly, the number of children under age 6 reported to have developmental disabilities doubled. Also important, in both surveys children living in poverty were the most likely to have disabilities, although disabilities in children in other economic groups rose, as well.

“The survey did not break out autism, but we suspect that some of the increase in neurodevelopmental disabilities is due to the rising incidence or recognition of autism spectrum disorders,” said the study’s lead author, who says more research is needed before that connection could be confirmed.

Source: Disability Scoop, "In Decade’s Time, Childhood Disabilities Rise 16 Percent," Shaun Heasley, May 6, 2013

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