Problem: High Incidence Among Children with Special Needs


An overview on how obesity is particularly present in the special needs community

“We feel that the healthy weight issue for people with disabilities is every bit as serious as it is in the general population. There’s an epidemic, an endemic of unhealthy weight in this population.”

Stephen Corbin, D.D.S., M.P.H.
Senior Vice President, Constituent Services and Support
Special Olympics

What is Obesity?

Obesity is defined using BMI, which is an estimate of the amount of body fat a person has based on his or her height and weight.

  • A child is considered overweight if he or she hasa BMI at or above the 85th percentile and lower than the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex.
  • A child is considered obese if he or she hasa BMIat or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex.

article-1_overview-pic3The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a BMI calculator for children and teens on its website that also factors in gender:

Obesity is global problem. Overweight and obesity are the fifth leading risk factors for global deaths and the problem is increasing. Worldwide, obesity has more than doubled since 1980. In the U.S., more than one-third of all adults are obese. But while obesity affects much of the developed world’s population, it is of special concern for those with disabilities. Research has demonstrated conclusively that both adults and children with disabilities are significantly more likely than their peers to be overweight or obese. “We found enormous differences between adults and children with and without disabilities across numerous surveillance tools,” reports Michael Fox, Sc.D., Associate Director for Science, Division of Human Development and Disability,National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the Centers for Disease Control andPrevention.

article-3_problem-pic-2 The Statistics

Special Olympics is the largest recreational program in the world for children with intellectual disabilities. Each year, the program measures the BMI of about 5,400 of its youth athletes (under age 22). Because of their involvement with sports, Special Olympic athletes tend to be more fit and active than people with intellectual disabilities who are less active. Stephen Corbin, D.D.S., M.P.H., Senior Vice President, Constituent Services and Support at Special Olympics reports that 16.1 % of these screened athletes are overweight and 32.9 % are obese. All together, nearly half of these athletes are at an unhealthy weight.
“This is quite alarming to us,” Dr. Corbin says. “Once people get very heavy, they tend not to want to do physical activity. So it’s almost a self-fulfilling death sentence.” In fact, the CDC estimates that health care costs of obesity related to disability reach $44 billion each year.

But while people tend to get heavier as they get older, obesity is not restricted to disabled adults. It’s a growing concern among children with special needs. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 22.5% of children with disabilities are obese compared to 16% of children without disabilities. The problem is more pronounced among girls than boys.

  • Among girls with disabilities age 2-17, the prevalence of obesity is 23%. Among their peers without disabilities, the prevalence is 14%.
  • Among boys with disabilities age 2-17, the prevalence of obesity is 21%. Among their peers without disabilities, the prevalence is 17%

The problem is particularly acute among young teens and “tweens.” The CDC has found that while 18% of children age 10-14 without disabilities are obese, the rate for children in the same age group with disabilities is 30%. “That’s the time in early adolescence when children generally look at themselves and become more self-conscious,” explains Dr. Fox. But while children without disabilities have many options for controlling their weight through team sports and other activities, children with disabilities often have fewer choices.

Different kinds of disabilities provide their own particular challenges. An analysis of NHANES datafrom 1999-2002 produced striking results:

  • 80.6 % of children with functional limitations on physical activity were either overweight or obese
  • 50.8 % of children receiving special education services were either overweight or obese
  • 44% of children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) were either overweight or obese

In 2010, researchers measured the BMI of 461 adolescents aged 12-18 with physical, intellectual or behavioral disabilities. The findings were startling: