Significantly more children have disabilities today as compared to a decade ago, largely due to increased diagnosis of neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions, researchers say.

The prevalence of disability in children grew more than 16 percent in 10 years, according to findings presented Sunday at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting, a gathering of four leading pediatric organizations held in Washington, D.C.

It’s unclear what’s behind the rise in disability prevalence, though greater diagnosis of autism could be at least partly responsible, said Amy Houtrow of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who is lead author of the study.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Researchers looked at data from the National Health Interview Survey — a poll of more than 100,000 parents of children up to age 17 conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — comparing responses from 2009-2010 to those collected in 2001-2002.

As part of the survey, parents were asked whether their children had any limitations and, if so, what type of condition their deficits were attributable to. Children who were reported to have a limitation were divided into three groups: physical disabilities, neurodevelopmental or mental health conditions and other.

Ultimately, researchers found that six million children had a disability in 2009-2010, an increase of one million over the previous sampling. At the same time, the prevalence of physical disabilities declined while neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions rose.

Most strikingly, the study found that the rate of neurodevelopmental disabilities nearly doubled for children under age 6.

While kids living in poverty had the highest rates of disability in both time periods studied, the largest increase in childhood disability rates was seen in kids from households with higher incomes.

“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 Houtrow, adding that more research is needed to fully assess what’s behind the growth in disability prevalence.

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.