Throughout the past seven years, the number of children and teens in New England with developmental or emotional disorders has increased exponentially, the Kids Count Data Center reports.
Developmental disorders are conditions that interrupt a child’s development. They include Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. Emotional disorders affect a person’s ability to be happy, control their emotions and pay attention in school. They include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder.
Between 2007 to 2011, 5,000 children in New England were diagnosed with those disorders. That translates into 1.8 percent of New Englanders in that age bracket. Those numbers rose sharply from 2011 to 2016, by 5.16 percent, or about 20,768 children, according to the Kids Count Data Center. Studies report that improvements in screenings, better diagnostic tools and awareness all contribute to the rise in numbers.
Kathy Bobensk, a former special education teacher from Cromwell, whose daughter, Carly, has cerebral palsy, said the reasons for the increase are varied.
“I believe that the number of children with developmental disorders is increasing due to these disorders becoming much more prevalent and with more services becoming available,” Bobensk said.
Carly, 38, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after her umbilical cord wrapped around her throat in the womb, Bobensk said. This left her a quadriplegic and nonverbal, but she is “very bright” and would take classes with children without disabilities, she said.
In Bobensk’s first year of teaching special education in Hartford in 1974, there was only one class between a few schools for children with these disorders, but as her career continued, she said, more classes were added because more students were diagnosed with autism or Down syndrome.
A data brief issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from November 2017 found that across America, developmental disorders are more common in boys than in girls.
Prevalence among age groups varied by condition, which may reflect recent improvements in awareness and screening, the brief said.
The number of diagnoses may be growing rapidly because of advances in medical technology, the CDC said. The screenings have become so advanced that they can detect not only autism, but other developmental or emotional disorders that were previously unknown, the CDC brief said.
Another CDC report reveals that in a given year, 15 million children aged 3 to 15 are diagnosed with an emotional condition, and only 3 million of them receive treatment.
Many researchers have debated what has been causing the increase in children with emotional disorders. A 2011 article in the American Journal of Play suggests that the increase is caused by children in today’s society not playing outside or with friends as much. A 2016 study funded by the National Institutes of Health suggests that a lack of sleep could be to blame for the spike in anxiety and depression.
Bobensk doesn’t agree with these studies. She said more people are willing to ask for help.
“I believe that in our nation, [mental illness] is becoming more accepted,” Bobensk said. “People aren’t as afraid to ask for help; there isn’t as much of a stigma.”
Sarah LeMere is a senior at Coginchaug Regional High School in Durham.