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Trends in Prevalence of Disabilities among Youth

Because there is no single definition, estimates of the number of youth with disabilities living in the U.S. vary. The National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs identified nearly 1 in 5 children ages 12-17 as having special healthcare needs,1 and the American Community Survey estimates that more than 1.3 million U.S. young people ages 16-20 have a disability.2 If children with chronic conditions that last less than a year or who have had at least one chronic condition at any time in childhood are included, up to 50 percent of all U.S. children have a disability.3  Many young people have more than one condition that contributes to activity limitation: more than a third (35 percent) of adolescents with special healthcare needs have three or more chronic conditions.4

Chronic Conditions

Chronic conditions

There is a wide variety in chronic conditions and their severity. They can affect someone physically (e.g., asthma or having a non-functioning limb), mentally (e.g., depression or ADHD), or socially (e.g., autism). Not all chronic conditions fall under the definition of a disability as it applies to legal supports; however, supporting youth with chronic conditions and their families can improve health outcomes and help these youth achieve their goals.

Among children ages zero to 17, adolescents have the highest prevalence of special healthcare needs, which likely reflects conditions that develop or are diagnosed in late childhood.1 Several sources indicate that the prevalence of childhood disabilities has increased in recent decades, although some portion of that trend may be due to improved diagnostic methods and better access to services. In recent decades, trends in prevalence have shifted from predominantly physical conditions to an increased prevalence of developmental, emotional, and behavioral conditions.3,5

About one in seven (14 percent) children between the ages of three and 17 have developmental disabilities.4 Rates of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a group of developmental disabilities often characterized by impairments in communication, have increased to about one in 68 children, and ASD commonly co-occurs with other developmental diagnoses. The steep increase in prevalence has been attributed, in part, to both social and environmental factors. These social factors include changes in recognition and diagnosis, and increased incentives for early intervention, as well as parental age at birth, breastfeeding, and the toxic stress associated with poverty. Environmental factors include exposure to a range of toxins.3


1 Health Resources & Services Administration, Maternal & Child Health Bureau. (2013). The National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs. Chartbook 2009-2010, p. 9. Retrieved from https://mchb.hrsa.gov/cshcn0910/
2 Erickson, W., Lee, C., & von Schrader, S. (2016). 2015 Disability status report: United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Yang Tan Institute on Employment and Disability (YTI).
3 Halfon, N., Houtrow, A., Larson, K., & Newachek, P. W. (2012). The changing landscape of disability in childhood. Future of Children, 22(1), 13-42.
4 Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health. National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs. Retrieved from http://childhealthdata.org/learn/NS-CSHCN
5 Delaney, L., & Smith, J. P. (2012). Childhood health: Trends and consequences over the life course. Future of Children, 22(1), 43-63.
Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on July 22, 2019