School & District Management

Children With Disabilities More Likely Overweight Than Peers

By Nirvi Shah — November 02, 2011 2 min read
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Getting kids to exercise and eat right is challenging enough. But what if they will only eat foods that are yellow? Or don’t have the same feelings of being full as other people? What if the medicine they take to control some of their behaviors makes them gain a lot of weight, fast, or makes them very lethargic?

For students with disabilities, these are all real scenarios, compounding the challenges many children have to stay fit, notes a new report from, an online community for parents of children with disabilities and the professionals who work with them.

But too often, children with disabilities—"the population that’s most affected” by challenges with obesity—has been left out, said Sheryl Young, the CEO of “Today we’re changing that conversation.”

Statistics from “Finding Balance: Obesity and Children with Special Needs,” show that children with disabilities are 38 percent more likely to be overweight or obese than their peers.

The report is full of ideas on how to address the problem, but Timothy Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics, said the report acknowledges a huge failure. Special Olympics reports that 16.1 percent of athletes screened by the organization are overweight and 32.9 percent are obese.

“Special Olympics is over 40 years old,” he said, and has reached more than 3 million athletes. “To see these number staring us in the face to me says we all deserve a failing grade.”

Children with all kinds of disabilities are likely to be overweight, although children with some conditions are affected more than others.

Analyzing data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey, the report authors found that almost 51 percent of children receiving special education services were overweight or obese. While about 81 percent of children with limitations on their physical activity were overweight, so were 44 percent of children with attention deficit disorder, 67 percent of the teens with autism spectrum disorder, and 86 percent of the teens with Down syndrome.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that health care costs of obesity related to disability is about $44 billion each year.

While many people with disabilities are under the care of a doctor, those physicians often focus on treating patients’ primary condition, Mr. Shriver said. When medications address the disability, doctors and families may be reluctant to abandon them even when a side effect is weight gain.

In addition, parents of children with disabilities may worry that their kids will get hurt if they play sports or participate in fitness activities. While some children are genuinely too fragile to participate in many athletic activities, there are options, such as Special Olympics. And schools are being encouraged to make physical education classes and athletic teams more inclusive of students with special needs.

While adjustments to diet are important, getting kids moving could be a lot easier for children to accept.

“We have to remind people that the best way to incentivize people is to say here’s something fun to do,” Mr. Shriver said. “Let’s get kids playing together.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.