The ratio of children and teenagers in America who have a developmental disability such as autism, learning disorders or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has grown 17% since the late 1990s, according to a new study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 1997-1999, around 12.8 percent of kids were known to have a developmental disability. That figure increased to 15% in 2006-2008, with an additional 1.8 million American children.

This upward drift has been propelled mostly by increase in the number of children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Occurrence of stuttering and learning disabilities has also grown.

The study is published in the June 2011 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Sheree Boulet, Dr.P.H., one of the study’s authors and an epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (1) states that it is the first time representative data on developmental disabilities has been gathered on a nationwide basis since 1988.

There seems to be no clear explanations for the increases, but a wider acceptance of developmental disabilities has played a vital role. Boulet explains that with the accessibility to early treatments for conditions such as ADHD has prompted more parents to get their kids screened for the disorder.

According to the researchers, the occurrence of disabilities may be really increasing. Some of the contributing risk factors could be couples opting to have children later in life, premature births, and rise in the use of fertility treatments. Boulet is confident that the findings could pave way for prevention strategies that could help in the long run.

The study was conducted on nationwide basis, involving interviews with about 120,000 children.

Some of the questions the researchers asked parents was whether their children had been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, seizures, stuttering or stammering, hearing loss, blindness, or intellectual disability.

Boulet states that there were striking variations in diagnosis rates across economic, ethnic, and gender perspectives.

The study also found that boys were more probable to have a developmental disability compared to girls. When compared with white and black kids, Hispanic kids were less likely to be diagnosed with disabilities. Children with public insurance like Medicaid were more likely to have disabilities than children on private insurance programmes.

Boulet proclaims that the increase in disabilities as seen in the study is a wake-up call for a revamp of the health-care system, which needs to bolstered with specialized health, mental health services and therapists. Only then can children be provided with specialized treatment and preventative care.

More awareness needed

Lead study author Coleen Boyle, director of the U.S. National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (2) stressed on the need to invest in programs to assist and facilitate a child’s health-care and their overall development. He suggested that progressive maternal and paternal age, aided reproductive technology and large numbers of premature or late-preterm births, could all play a part in influencing developmental disabilities.

Dr. Nancy Murphy, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council (3) on Children with Disabilities considers the increases in these conditions may indicate a greater awareness on the part of parents, teachers and health care professionals to identify children with developing disabilities such as autism and ADHD early in life.

The growth in medical science and technology has helped children born with severe developmental disabilities like neuromuscular or chromosomal disorders increase survival rates when compared to in the past, according to Dr Murphy.

The study concluded that although the proportion of autism and ADHD were on the rise, other developmental conditions stayed the same including blindness and intellectual disability, whereas moderate to profound hearing loss showed a noteworthy decline.

Solution for Parents with Autistic Children

1) The U.S. National Institute of Child Health & Human Development
2) U.S. National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities
3) American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council

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