More Children with Disabilities?

Various factors may have skewed the statistics, expert says

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows more children today have been identified as having disabilities. The figures rose from 16.2% in 2009-2011 to 17.8% in 2015-2017, including ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disabilities. All of these can affect children’s ability to learn.

While it may appear that the number of children with developmental disabilities is rising, other factors may have skewed the statistics.

“There are more services available now and more agencies offering supports,” said Nicole Forgione, assistant director of marketing and communications People, Inc. in Buffalo and Rochester. “The medical professionals are more aware and there are more studies. When a child is having a challenge, it’s more recognizable and parents are bringing it to the attention of a medical professional instead of waiting.”

She added that educators are more knowledgeable about learning disabilities and can more readily identify children exhibiting traits identified with them.

Year-round, fir trees grow in a variety of places: parks, landscapes and personal properties. Yet only in December do people who celebrate Christmas notice all the “Christmas trees” on their daily commute. In a similar sense, understanding the characteristics of developmental and learning disabilities helps professionals and, to an extent, parents become aware to the point that they recognize when a child exhibits these traits that could indicate a disability.

The availability of screening and services normally begins in urban areas and takes time—even several years—to eventually extend to more rural areas. The increased numbers could reflect this rollout.

“The testing rates are much higher for us in our area, which is why we see more students needing speech language, physical therapy or occupational therapy,” said Brandon Jerla, director of staff development and learning at Empower in Niagara Falls. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Children who in the past wouldn’t have speech therapy are now receiving it.”

The definition of disabilities can also increase the numbers. When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders came out in 2014, it redefined diagnoses to make many more specific.

Some also point to an increased in the number of older parents’ age as one of the possible reasons. More people have delayed starting a family than ever to pursue educational and career opportunities. Advanced parental age is widely known to increase the risk of numerous disabilities in children.

“There are more kids born these days that wouldn’t have been alive 20 or 30 years ago,” said physician Dennis Z. Kuo, associate professor at University at Buffalo and chief of the Division of General Pediatrics at UBMD Pediatrics and University at Buffalo. “You’re going to see some chronic conditions because these kids wouldn’t have been alive.”

Kuo also said that greater recognition of disability within certain populations may also increase numbers.

“There’s prevalence in data that there are increasing rates in African American and Hispanic children but it may be more widespread awareness and screening,” Kuo said. “Historically, white non-Hispanic children were more likely to be identified.

“To me, the higher number of diagnoses is an issue but the real issue is making sure all kids get what they need. Many of our services require diagnoses. It’s an issue because you need to get the specific administrator to get that diagnosis.”

He views the increase in numbers as a positive trend, as it indicates that more children are receiving needed services.