60% jump in Singapore kids diagnosed with developmental problems


A growing number of young children have been diagnosed with developmental problems such as autism and speech and language delays.

About 4,000 new patients were diagnosed last year by the Child Development Programme (CDP) at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the National University Hospital.

This was a 60 per cent increase from the about 2,500 new cases diagnosed in 2010, a Ministry of Health (MOH) spokesman told The Sunday Times.

Children assessed and given early intervention therapy range from babies to those under seven years of age. MOH attributed the rise to a greater awareness of developmental problems and an improved system of screening in pre-schools and in the community.

Related: Is there a cure for autism?

Asked if the fact that Singaporeans are having children at an older age has anything to do with the rising numbers, Professor Ho Lai Yun, senior consultant at KKH’s Department of Child Development, said: “Evidence shows that developmental problems occur more frequently among children of parents who are older. This applies to both fathers and mothers.”

This is because older mothers are more likely to experience medical problems during their pregnancy, such as giving birth prematurely. And premature babies face a higher risk of disability and developmental problems.

Related: 3 signs that your child has a speech problem

Another reason for the rise is that mild developmental problems are also more likely to be detected today – unlike in the past – as parents and professionals become more attuned to such problems, said Awwa’s director of disability support Karthikeyan Jambulingam.

Awwa is a charity offering the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (Eipic), which helps children overcome their developmental problems or at least prevent them from worsening.

The Sunday Times understands that the bulk of children found to have developmental problems here are diagnosed by the CDP.

The top four most common conditions are speech and language delays, autism spectrum disorders, behavioural problems and global developmental delay. They made up about 90 per cent of new cases diagnosed last year, said MOH.

Behavioural problems include temper tantrums, bullying and refusing to go to school, Prof Ho said.

Children with speech and language delays fall behind their peers in speech and language skills. A child suffering from global developmental delay lags behind his peers in two or more areas of development, such as in language and motor skills.

Housewife Lynn Chua, 35, said her six-year-old son was diagnosed with autism when he was three. She suspected something was amiss as he was not able to articulate his needs and would throw tantrums easily, among other telltale signs.

However, with early intervention therapy, the boy has made big improvements in controlling his emotions and articulating his needs, for instance.

Prof Ho said Singapore has come a long way in the past 10 to 15 years in detecting, diagnosing and treating children, especially those with mild or even moderate developmental problems.

“We have, over the years, dedicated a lot of effort towards improving treatment services and their accessibility,” he said.

“As a result, children diagnosed with mild to moderate developmental problems have been able to successfully move on to mainstream schools and complete their formal education.”

A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.

(Photo: Mark Cheong/SPH) 


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