Scripps Howard News Service
December 16, 2003


By Joan Lowy

One in every three American families has had to cope with a child with
a learning disability or a mental illness and most people believe such
problems are increasing, according to a poll by Scripps Howard News
Service and Ohio University.

In a national survey of 1,054 people, 65 percent said they believe
learning disabilities are becoming more common and 72 percent said
mental health problems are becoming more common.

Thirty percent of poll respondents said they have had a child under
age 18 in their family _ a brother or sister, son or daughter, niece
or nephew, grandchild or first cousin _ diagnosed with a learning
disability. Eight percent said they have had more than one child
diagnosed with a learning disability.

More than 12 percent said they have had a child in their family
diagnosed with a mental illness, and 3 percent said they have had more
than one child diagnosed.

"Those are staggering numbers," said Shelly Hearne, executive director
of the nonpartisan Trust for America's Health. "The implication is
that we have a significant problem out there that we are not
adequately addressing."

Inevitably, such disorders take a personal toll on the children and
their families and a larger toll on society.

Joan Iovinio, for example, was identified in second grade by school
officials as both mentally "gifted" and learning disabled. She liked
to read Mark Twain and conduct science experiments with plants. On
certain intelligence and aptitude tests, she scored in the top 1

When it came to math, however, Iovino felt like she was in a foreign
country where everyone spoke a language she didn't understand. All but
the simplest calculations were beyond her grasp. The worst was when
the teacher would ask students at random to solve an equation.

"I would sit there and think, 'Don't call on me, don't call on me,
don't call on me," " said Iovino, 20, of Bethesda, Md. "At the time, I
didn't know why I couldn't do this. I thought, 'What's wrong with me?'
At least if another kid got it wrong the answer was sort of close, but
I was having to guess at random."

Iovino _ now an honors student at a community college _ was eventually
diagnosed with dyscalculia, which is the inability to learn to
calculate. By sixth grade, she was in a class for the learning
disabled that included severely retarded and emotionally disturbed
students. Angry and alienated, she dropped out of school the following
year in favor of home schooling.

No one knows for certain why some children have learning disabilities,
attention disorders, autism or emotional disorders like anxiety,
depression and bipolar.

What's clear is that these disorders appear far more prevalent in
children than was generally thought a generation ago. Whether their
actual incidence is on the rise is a matter of fierce debate among
scientists, parents, educators and doctors.

There is a huge gender gap for many of the disorders. Studies have
shown that boys are three to four times more likely to be diagnosed
with autism than girls. Boys are also two to three times more likely
to be diagnosed with attention and learning disorders.

Many children are diagnosed with multiple disorders. About half of
children with attention disorders also have at least one learning
disability, and more than a third have an emotional disorder like
anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, which is characterized by
mood swings.

"These labels are like grasping at straws," said Dr. Martha Herbert, a
pediatric neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
"They are getting at some surface differences among the kids, but they
don't get to the deep essence of what's going on with them."

Prescriptions to children and adolescents for psychiatric drugs more
than doubled in the decade ending in 1996, according to a study by Dr.
Julie Zito of the University of Maryland. Prescriptions for
antidepressants used to treat emotional disorders like anxiety,
depression and bipolar rose even faster than prescriptions for
stimulants used to treat attention and hyperactivity disorders.

Another recent study of pharmaceutical industry data by Yale
University researchers found that prescriptions to children and
adolescents for anti-psychotic drugs used to treat severe mental
illness went up 138 percent and other antidepressants were up 43
percent between 1997 and 2000.

Some parents, scientists and public health advocates are convinced
environmental influences ranging from viruses to chemicals such as
alcohol, lead, PCBs, pesticides and mercury are interfering with brain
development in children.

"This is an epidemic," said Jo Rupert Behm, a nurse and past president
of the Learning Disabilities Association of California. Behm's son,
Sean, was diagnosed at age 8 with three learning disabilities and
attention deficit disorder. "The public is only now becoming aware of

But some experts believe there is no real increase in the prevalence
of any of the disorders, except perhaps autism. Rather, they say there
has been a re-labeling of students who are perhaps less intelligent or
less industrious to explain their lack of academic success.

Increases in prescription drugs are because of aggressive marketing by
pharmaceutical makers, reductions in insurance coverage for mental
health counseling, and parents and teachers looking for a quick fix
for unruly students, said Arthur Caplan, chairman of the department of
medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Also, parents seek learning disability diagnoses for their children so
they can get extra help or consideration, Caplan said.

"They get more time on tests or it becomes a reason to give an
affirmative action look at a school admission," he said. "It tends to
be used more as an explanation or an excuse."

Greg Rosenthal, 39, a software developer in Rockville, Md., whose 10-
year-old daughter has been diagnosed as both intellectually "gifted"
and learning disabled, said he finds the suggestion that some parents
use learning disabilities to leverage the educational system "highly

"No parent wants to have their child coded for a learning disability,"
Rosenthal said. "When you realize that your child has issues you sort
of go through a process that is like grieving... The idea that
someone might seek this to get extra services or some dispensation
ignores the whole emotional journey of a parent."

Contact Joan Lowy at

Copyright 2003 Scripps Howard News Service