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Childhood Mental Disability Rates Up, Study Finds

Largest increase reported among wealthier families

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Kathleen Doheny

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Aug. 18, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Rates of developmental and mental disabilities -- ranging from speech problems to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder -- have jumped 21 percent among U.S. children, according to a new report.

Overall, parent-reported disabilities rose 16 percent -- from almost 5 million children to about 6 million between 2001 and 2011, said study author Dr. Amy Houtrow, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh.

"We know that disabilities have been on the rise for decades," Houtrow said. Understanding the trends helps practitioners know where and how to better direct services, the study noted.

Children from poor families are more likely to have a disability than richer kids, but the surge in neurodevelopmental and mental troubles was most notable among wealthier families, the researchers found.

Although the study didn't look at why this is so, Houtrow said there is less stigma about getting help for a disability than in the past. She also speculated that wealthier families have better access to care.

A Florida pediatric neurologist agreed. Dr. Sayed Naqvi, of Miami Children's Hospital, said he's observed a surge in requested services for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and speech delay. Many of those families have easy access to pediatric information on the Internet and a growing awareness that their kids can be helped, he said.

"The more affluent parents come prepared, they know what services are there," Naqvi said. "We spend a lot more time nowadays discussing [treatments]."

For the study, published online Aug. 18 in Pediatrics, Houtrow analyzed data from the U.S. National Health Interview Surveys taken in four time periods between 2001 and 2011.

Parents first reported if their child had a limitation or disability. Next, they chose from a list of limiting physical, developmental or mental health conditions.

Physical conditions included: asthma or breathing problems, vision problems, hearing problems, bone/joint/muscle problems, injury.

Mental/neurodevelopmental conditions included: epilepsy or seizures, speech problems, learning disability, ADHD, mental retardation, other mental/emotional/behavioral problems, and other developmental problems.

Autism spectrum disorders, now thought to affect one in 68 U.S. children, was not one of the specific developmental disorders that parents could report. "Autism probably would have been listed by the parent as either 'other developmental problem,' 'other mental, emotional or behavioral problem' or 'intellectual disability' (also referred to as mental retardation)," Houtrow said.

Birth defects or other impairment problems were considered unclassifiable conditions.

Physical disability cases declined almost 12 percent over the decade, the study authors noted.

Significant increases were reported in "other mental, emotional or behavioral problems," which rose 65 percent, and speech problems and mental retardation, each up 63 percent, Houtrow said.

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