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Youth Disabilities Shift From Physical to Mental, Testing Resources

Unprecedented numbers of American children are being identified with special medical and educational needs, and over the past several decades, the types of predominant childhood disabilities have shifted from physical disorders to mental health disorders, according to the latest edition of the Future of Children, a publication from the Brookings Institution and Princeton University.

The new report says that ADHD is about three times more likely than asthma to contribute to reported childhood disability.

Why does this shift matter? The authors said research shows that on average, mental health disorders in childhood have larger effects than childhood physical health problems on adult health, years of schooling, participation in the labor force, marital status, and family income.

The editors said that the term "disability" is not standardized, complicating researchers' ability to understand increasing disability rates. Regardless, the prevalence of mental health problems among children and their potential effect on human capital are worrisome, they said. Although mental disabilities make up a growing share of children's disabilities, services haven't grown at as quick a pace.

The report also talks about health care for children with disabilities and the complex role health insurance plays in access to and quality of care. Other sections are devoted to disparities among children with disabilities and the role technology can play in reducing disabilities if equitably distributed.

A key goal for modern society, the authors say, should be to devote resources to prevent, diagnose, and manage health conditions in children to improve their ability to function and their future trajectories. The report shows that the costs of not doing so may be greater than the costs of many interventions to prevent and reduce childhood disability.

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