Increasing Autism Rates and Children with Disabilities

New estimates show that 1 in 88 American children have been identified as having autism spectrum disorder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said [yesterday], marking an increase of more than 20 percent since the last time such data were collected.” (Education Week, March 29, 2012)

Recently, an article in Pediatrics highlighted the employment and earnings challenges for families with children with autism. In their research, Cidav, Marcus, and Mandell found that mothers of children with autism earn 35% less than the mothers of children with another health limitation and 56% less than the mothers of children with no health limitation. They are 6% less likely to be employed and work 7 hours less per week, on average, than mothers of children with no health limitation. These families face a significant economic burden. (See Pediatrics , 129(4), April 2012)

An upcoming volume of the Future of Children, “Children with Disabilities” (out at the end of April 2012), shows that over the past several decades, predominant childhood disabilities have shifted away from physical disorders toward mental health disorders. Moreover, research shows mental health disorders in childhood to have larger impacts than childhood physical health problems, on average, in terms of adult health, years of schooling, participation in the labor force, marital status, and family income.

In terms of economic costs, the volume’s chapter, “The Economic Costs of Childhood Disability” states, “Childhood disabilities entail a range of immediate and long-term economic costs that have important implications for the well-being of the child, the family, and society.” When looking at direct, out-of-pocket costs incurred as a result of a child’s disability; indirect costs, often involving employment, incurred by the family; and long-term costs associated with the child’s future economic performance, the negative effects appear to be much greater, on average, for children with mental health problems than for those with physical disabilities.

A key goal for society today is to devote resources to preventing, diagnosing, and managing mental health conditions in children to improve their functioning and trajectories. In fact, as the volume shows, the costs of not doing so may be greater than the costs of many interventions to prevent and reduce childhood disability.

Public discussion of childhood disability, by the media, parents, scholars, and advocates alike, tends to emphasize particular causes of disability, such as autism, asthma, cystic fibrosis, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In the upcoming volume of the Future of Children, “Children with Disabilities,” we focus not on individual disabilities, but rather on cross-cutting themes that apply more broadly to the issue of children with disabilities.

The volume will be published at the end of April. Please watch our website for this informative volume. You can also join our listserv if you would like to be notified by email when the journal becomes available.

Please visit us on Facebook and Twitter.