Nonphysical disabilities in kids on the rise

August 28, 2014

Childhood mental and neurodevelopmental disabilities increased significantly between 2001 and 2011 as physical disabilities continued to decline, a 10-year analysis shows.

 

Childhood mental and neurodevelopmental disabilities increased significantly between 2001 and 2011 as physical disabilities continued to decline, a 10-year analysis shows. The increase was greater among children from wealthier than poorer families.

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When researchers examined data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they found an increase of 20.9% from 2001 through 2011 in disabilities related to neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions. Physical disabilities decreased by 11.8% during the same period.

Possible reasons for the higher rates of mental and developmental disabilities, the researchers suggest, include changes in diagnostic criteria, growth in overall rates of conditions such as autism, greater awareness of these conditions, and the need to provide a specific diagnosis to access services such as early intervention.

An unexpected finding of the study was a 28.4% increase in mental and developmental disabilities among children living in households with incomes at or above 400% of the federal poverty level compared with 10.7% among children below the federal poverty level. This is the first time since the NHIS started tracking childhood disabilities in 1957 that prevalence rose more among socially advantaged families. Overall, children living in poverty still have the highest disability rates.

The surprising data on disability rates in children of wealthier families underscore the need to investigate social, medical, and environmental influences on parental reports of disability, the researchers note. Possible factors include greater use of diagnostic and treatment services arising from better access to care by higher-income families; greater acceptability of seeking a diagnosis, especially a mental health diagnosis, among such families; and diagnostic biases.


 

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