The Centers for Disease Control recently released a new study showing large increases in the number of Latino and black children identified with autism spectrum disorders. The study’s release coincided with Autism Awareness Month.
The CDC estimated that in 2008, about 1 in 88 American children had been diagnosed with autism, with boys five times as likely to be identified as girls. There were about 7.9 diagnosed cases per 1,000 Latino children. That’s still significantly less than the 12.0 cases per 1,000 of white children and 10.2 per 1,000 black children. But identification is increasing within the Hispanic community. Autism prevalence among Latino children (the number of 8-year-olds identified) increased by 110% between 2002 and 2008, compared with a 70% increase for white children.
Public schools are addressing the increase in different ways. In the past, many of these students would have attended private schools with public school district covering much of those costs. But now, to save money and comply with federal requirements that students be placed in the “least restrictive” environment, some of the students are placed in mainstream classrooms in public schools. Teachers are also being trained on how to instruct such students.
The report notes that wide variation in prevalence among groups could be attributed to the level of awareness in communities and access to help, in addition to how the numbers are counted. Which raises the question, how much do Latino parents know about autism–especially those who don’t speak English? Does that contribute to a lower rate of identified cases within the group? The CDC urges that children need to be identified earlier, before they are even school-aged.
There are some efforts to increase early identification of Latino children. The Drexel Autism Center Hispanic Program in Philadelphia uses bilingual clinical psychology doctoral students to reach out to Hispanic families and conduct assessments. The program features testimonials on its web sites from families who are thankful for the Spanish-language help and discussions about the children’s condition.
The CDC study data is from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. It is from 2008 data from 14 communities. In the study, Florida was the only location of the 14 sites where there was higher prevalence of autism among Hispanics compared with the other two groups. It would be interesting to further examine the differences in the Latino population in Florida versus other states that could explain the variation. In addition, New Jersey was the only site studied where prevalence was about the same among all three groups of children.
You can read the CDC community report here, and if you scroll down you can see breakdown by the states studied.
In addition, a second study recently released in the journal Pediatrics examined more than 6,000 children with autism who are enrolled in California’s Department of Developmental Services. The study (reported on by The Huffington Post here) concluded that low-functioning children were more likely to have mothers who are not white, are foreign-born, less-educated, and who are on Medi-Cal (Medicaid). The high-functioning children with autism had mothers who were white, educated, and not on Medicaid.
“This is real social justice problem,” pediatrician Claire McCarthy of the Children’s Hospital Boston at Harvard Medical School wrote in the Huffington Post. “The researchers didn’t have information on what kinds of services or treatments the kids go, so they couldn’t give an explanation for what they found. But they guessed, as all of us might, that children with more educated and affluent mothers not only had better homes and neighborhood environments, but access to more and better services–and parents who were able to fight for those services.”
Reporters can gather a few questions from these studies. What are your local schools or districts doing to educate Latino parents about autism and how to screen their children? Does that outreach include Spanish-language efforts? The researchers are urging early identification, so it’s especially important to direct efforts at pre-school programs. So do those programs offer services for autistic students?