Kids with Special Needs by the Details and Numbers

The term 'special needs' is broad, to say the least. Here's a closer look at some common childhood challenges, what they are and how many children are affected.

Childhood special needs are unique and diverse. How prevalent are some of the most well known diagnoses – and what exactly are they?

To get a snapshot, Metro Parent dug through a variety of definitions, studies and stats, using some of the latest data and info from reputable health organizations and government agencies. When necessary, to determine ratios and percentages of affected kids, we also did some of our own math with recent census data.

That said, a disclaimer: The ratios and percentages here won’t necessarily be the “official” or absolute numbers – because, often, data for kids is provided in a range, is based on the most recent estimates (which can be many years old in some cases), hasn’t been well-tracked or simply goes outdated quickly. Our goal? To give a sense of some childhood special needs in the United States as of late 2017.

A few other notes: The four categories here – developmental/learning, behavioral/emotional, sensory and medical/physical – are loose; some needs may fit more than one. Within each category, needs are listed from highest-to-lowest likelihood. Likewise, often, kids may have multiple diagnoses.

If you have suggestions or feedback, just let us know in the comments below.


  • Dyslexia: With this neurobiological disability, kids have a hard time recognizing words accurately and/or fluently and may struggle with poor spelling and “decoding” abilities. About 1 in 5 students have a language-based learning disability – and dyslexia is the most common cause, the Dyslexia Center of Utah notes. That means about 15 to 20 percent of school-age kids may be affected.
  • Learning disability: Persistent difficulties with reading, writing, math skills, retention, following direction, staying organized and other learning-related tasks are possible indicators, according to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. About 4.6 million school-age kids were affected in 2012, which comes to about 1 in 16 or 6 percent of kids.
  • Auditory processing disorder: With this condition, there’s a coordination issue between the ears and the brain, so kids can’t properly process the sounds they’re hearing – particularly when it comes to speech, notes KidsHealth from Nemours. About 1 in 20, or 5 percent, of school-age kids are impacted.
  • Autism: The often-cited 1 in 68 kids, or 1.5 percent, is still the best estimate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it’s based on a 2012 assessment of records of 8-year-olds. This development disability “can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges,” the CDC notes.
  • Down syndrome: About 1 in 1,000 youth ages 0-19 were affected as of 2002, says data cited by the CDC – or around 0.1 percent of youth. This is a genetic condition in which children are born with an extra chromosome (aka package of genes). They often have a mildly to moderately low-range IQ and are slower to speak than other kids, the CDC adds, and have common physical characteristics including almond-shaped eyes and “a flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose.”
  • Fragile X: With this genetic challenge, there is a mutation in the “Fragile X Mental Retardation 1” gene, according to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; it impacts intelligence, behavior and emotion, along with speech and language in most boys. An average of 1 in 6,000 people are affected; when we compared that to census data for kids only, it was about 1 in 12,300 youth, or about 0.008 percent of the population.


  • Anxiety: Considered the most common mental illness in the United States, it affects about 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 – or 1 in 4, notes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety, which includes about nine variants from panic to phobias and generalized to social, often involves persistent, excessive worry that’s hard to control over multi-month periods of time.
  • Oppositional defiant disorder: This behavior disorder, usually diagnosed in childhood, involves uncooperative, irritable and “annoying” behaviors, John Hopkins Medicine notes. The estimates range pretty widely; about 1 in 100 to 1 in 6 school-age kids could be affected, or about 1 to 16 percent of youth.
  • ADHD: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder affects close to 12 percent of kids ages 4-17 as of 2011-12 – we compared the CDC’s estimate of 6.4 million affected kids with census data from that time. The 1 in 8 children with this diagnosis may have issues paying attention, act out without thinking of the outcome or be overly active, the CDC adds.
  • Depression: It can be prompted by stress, loss, learning/conduct/anxiety disorders or can even run in families, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry – but the bottom line is, this treatable illness winds up affecting 1 in 20, or 5 percent of, kids and adolescents.
  • Bipolar: About 2.5 percent of teens ages 13-18 meet the criteria for what’s also known as “manic-depressive illness” in their lifetime in 2016 – and, when we compared that to census numbers, that yielded about 1 in 40 or 2.5 percent of teens. These rates rival adult numbers, the National Institutes of Health notes. This brain disorder causes “unusual shifts” in mood, energy, activity levels and “ability to carry out daily tasks,” NIH adds.
  • Tourette syndrome: About 1 in 360 kids – or 0.3 percent: That’s where diagnosed TS in youth ages 6-17 stands, the CDC reports (as many as double that may be undiagnosed). This condition of the nervous system causes people to have “tics” or sudden twitches, movements or sounds, CDC adds.


  • Deaf/hearing loss: Loss may be mild, moderate, severe or profound (deaf), the World Health Organization – and in one or both ears. The end result is trouble “hearing conversational speech or loud sounds.” About 3 million children are affected; compared to recent census info, that’s about 1 in 25 or 4 percent of kids (more than a third are under 3 years old, notes a National Court Reporters Association report citing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
  • Blind/visually impaired: Vision loss can run a gamut from partial to legally blind which, the National Federation of the Blind explains, means a “visual field of 20 degrees or less” – and that’s with the stronger eye receiving the “best possible correction.” About 93,600 school-age kids fall into this group, NFB adds – which comes to about 1 in 488 kids or 0.2 percent.


  • Asthma: This common disease impacts the lungs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, and triggers repeat episodes or attacks of coughing, wheezing and chest tightness. About 1 in 12, or 8.4 percent, of children have it, when the CDC estimate of 6.2 million kids pairs with census stats.
  • Food allergies: More than 170 foods can prompt “harmful immune responses” that range from mild hives or itchy mouth to severe anaphylaxis, which can cause death, Food Allergy Research & Education reports. By its estimate, 1 in 13 kids under 18 have these – hovering around 8 percent, by our math.
  • Cancer: Cure rates for kids are rising, notes nonprofit CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, but 16 types of childhood cancer persist, from brain tumors to leukemia. Current stats for cancer – which is a collection of related diseases that involves a breakdown of the body’s cell-dividing process – hover at about 1 in 59 kids, or 1.7 percent.
  • Heart defects: Present from birth, these affect the structure of babies’ hearts and how they work, the CDC notes. Betters treatments are improving the odds for kids, though issues like irregular heartbeat, infection or heart weakness can crop up later in life. About 1 in 74 kids, or 1.4 percent, are affected, based on our crunching of CDC and census numbers.
  • Epilepsy: This brain disorder causes a variety of types of seizures, ranging from “staring spells” to collapsing, shaking and “becoming unaware of what’s going on around them,” says the CDC. It estimates 0.6 percent of kids ages 0-17 have it, which comes to about 1 in 157.
  • Cerebral palsy: Caused by brain damage before, during or right after birth, this condition can result in issues with motor function, reflex, posture and balance, notes Novi-based cerebral palsy-information website MyChild. About 2-3 in 1,000 children are affected, or about 0.2 to 0.3 percent.
  • Diabetes (type 1): With this condition, the body doesn’t produce insulin, which breaks down sugars and starches we eat into glucose, which is then used for energy. The American Diabetes Association says about 193,000 people under age 20 are diagnosed, which is about 1 in 381 youth, or 0.3 percent.
  • Muscular dystrophy: About 1 in every 7,250 males ages 5-24 are affected by the Duchenne and Becker types, notes the CDC – roughly 0.01 percent of kids. These genetic disorders lead to weakening muscles and mobility over time. There are eight total types, the CDC adds.
  • Multiple sclerosis: MS is a disease that impacts the central nervous system, interrupting the flow of info in the brain and between brain and body, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society explains. About 8,000-10,000 kids up to age 18 have MS, it adds, which comes to about 1 in 8,178 kids or 0.01 percent.
  • Cystic fibrosis: With this life-threatening genetic disorder, mucus builds in and clogs up certain organs, says the Boomer Esiason Foundation, especially the lungs and pancreas – resulting in a variety of ill effects, from trouble breathing to lung and digestive tract damage. Roughly 15,000 kids under age 18 are affected; that’s about 1 in 10,860 or 0.009 percent.
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