Overview of Disabilities in Children

Overview of Disabilities in Children

By Sarah Johnson.

Roughly one billion people, or 15% of the world's population, have some form of disability. Compared to persons without disabilities, people with disabilities are more likely to experience negative socio-economic outcomes, such as less education, less employment, and higher poverty levels. 

Disabilities in Children

Data conducted about the health of children has found a high prevalence of emotional, developmental, and behavioral problems. It’s important to stay informed on the data revolving around the youth of America.

A study conducted by scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) from 2009-2017 found an increase in developmental disabilities being diagnosed among children in the United States 1. About 1 in 6 (17%) children aged 3–17 years were diagnosed with a developmental disability, as reported by parents. Since the study took place over many years, the data was also able to find that percentage increased over time. The percentage of children aged 3–17 years diagnosed with a developmental disability increased–from 16.2% in 2009–2011 to 17.8% in 2015–2017.

The following is an overview of disabilities in children:

Emotional Disorders

Anxiety disorders are among the most common childhood mental illnesses. They can be caused by many things including trauma or abuse, family issues, genetics, and other factors. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and social phobia. These conditions affect how people feel emotionally and physically. Symptoms may include restlessness, excessive worrying, feeling tense all day long, trouble sleeping at night, being easily startled, avoiding certain situations because they make you anxious, having physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches, and more. If left untreated, these conditions can lead to depression later in life.

Developmental Disorders

Children with autism spectrum disorders have difficulty communicating their needs and understanding others. ASDs also cause difficulties with social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and sensory processing. There are two types of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – autistic disorder and Asperger syndrome. AD affects one out of every 100 School-age children while AS occurs less frequently than that. Both conditions usually begin before age three but some cases start as early as infancy. 

Their cognitive development is delayed compared to peers who don't have this condition. Autism affects boys much more often than girls. There's no cure for autism but there are treatments available to help improve communication skills and behavior. Some of those treatments include speech therapy, occupational therapy, special education services, and medication.

Behavioral Problems

There are several different kinds of behavioral disorders Some examples include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, enuresis/encopresis, tic disorders, Tourette's Disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, selective mutism, trichotillomania, and eating disorders.

Learning Problems

Kids who struggle academically need extra help learning skills such as reading, writing, math, science, history, geography, art, music, and so forth. Learning differences occur due to brain damage, genetic abnormalities, birth defects, illness, injury, stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and environmental influences. Many times, parents don’t realize there’s something wrong until after kindergarten.

People with learning disabilities struggle with academic tasks such as reading, writing, math, spelling, listening comprehension, speaking, and memory. This type of disability usually begins before age 5.

Some examples of learning problems include dyslexia, specific language impairment, speech delay, and auditory processing disorder. Dyslexia refers to a pattern of neurological dysfunction characterized by impaired phonological awareness, rapid naming speed, visual perception, working memory, and executive function. It typically starts around 2nd grade and lasts throughout adolescence and beyond. Specific Language Impairment is defined as “a communication disorder resulting from abnormal development of linguistic abilities despite normal cognitive ability and educational opportunity.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder


This condition causes hyperactive behavior and attention deficits. ADHD often begins during the preschool years and continues into adulthood. In fact, it’s estimated that 1% of adults suffer from this problem. Some signs of ADHD include fidgeting, talking excessively, interrupting others, not listening when spoken to directly, failing to finish tasks, losing items needed for work or play, forgetting appointments, and acting without thinking.

Antisocial personality disorder

APD is an emotional disturbance marked by persistent disregard for other people’s rights and feelings. People with APD tend to be impulsive, irresponsible, deceitful, manipulative, aggressive, hostile, and self-centered. They may lie about things they've done, break rules, take advantage of opportunities, and act aggressively toward others. The symptoms can vary depending on gender and culture.

Intervention services range from medication to therapy and vary with the form of disability. Children with disabilities need specialists who use assessment tools to ascertain the basis of disability and the intervention process. It is hard to classify a child based on functional limitations, without the consultation of a Child Development specialist. 

Sometimes students with disabilities may have more than one kind of disability. For example, some children might have both autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability (ID). Other kids might have ASD only. Still, others might have ID only. And yet another group might have neither ASD nor ID. These distinctions matter because each has its own set of intervention strategies.

Looking more specifically at the data from the CDC study and what increased; it was found diagnoses increased for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) from 8.5% to 9.5%), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from 1.1% to 2.5%, and intellectual disabilities (ID)  from 0.9% to 1.2%. The study did not research the reasoning behind the increase, however other research has found these increases may be caused by more awareness, screenings, and accessibility (information and testing).

The study did analyze groups that were more/less likely to be diagnosed with a developmental disability. They found that boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed, older children, children who had a lower birth weight (lower than 2500 g), non-Hispanic white children, children with public insurance, children with mothers with less than a college education, and children living in a household below the federal poverty line. Again, this study did not analyze causes but in relation to other studies, it’s understood that changes by demographic and socioeconomic subgroups may be related to improvements in awareness and access to health care.

Although the numbers are increasing, this should not necessarily be seen as a negative thing. Increased numbers indicate that more children are being properly diagnosed, in comparison to past years where disabilities were overlooked.

Early intervention is crucial to children who have a disability, with a diagnosis the child has a better opportunity at seeing improvement and may also prevent/minimize developmental delays. There is an increased understanding based on available evidence that early interventions can create moderate positive effects 2 .

To learn more about children with developmental disabilities and early signs visit the CDC website.

Our fun products are designed to help children with disabilities eat healthier foods when they leave home. Visit our shop today and get one for your child. 


Zablotsky B, Black L, Maenner M, et al. Prevalence and trends of developmental disabilities among children in the United States: 2009-2017. Pediatrics. 2019.

2  Majnemer, Annette. "Benefits of early intervention for children with developmental disabilities." Seminars in pediatric neurology. Vol. 5. No. 1. WB Saunders, 1998.

3. Basaninyenzi, Uwi. "Disability Inclusion" https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability#1 World Bank.

 4. Shelly J. Lane, Susan Mistrett. "Facilitating Play in Early Intervention" https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/children-with-disabilities  Play in Occupational Therapy for Children (Second Edition), 2008.

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