Reports of regressive autism – in which young children lose early language and social skills – are twice as common for African American children as for white children, according to new research. The same study found reports of regression 50 percent higher for Hispanic children than for whites.
The findings are the early results of a study made possible by families in the patient registry of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (AS-ATN).
“This is the first indication of racial differences in reported regression,” says researcher Adiaha Spinks Franklin. “It raises extremely important questions about why we’re seeing these differences.” Dr. Franklin is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the AS-ATN Center of Excellence at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. She presented her findings today at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The AS-ATN’s voluntary and anonymous patient registry includes demographic and medical information on children receiving care at its 17 centers across the United States and Canada. The collected information includes behavioral assessments and parent questionnaires.
In her study, Dr. Franklin looked at reports of regression among 1,353 children seen at AS-ATN centers from 2008 through 2011. Of these, 120 were African American and 150 were Hispanic.
Overall, just over a quarter of the children (27 percent) had experienced loss of early developmental skills, as reported by their parents. This is consistent with earlier research on regression.
However, Dr. Franklin was the first to tease apart regression rates by ethnicity. She found a rate twice as high among African American children as Caucasian children. It was 1.5 times higher among the Hispanic children than white children. The difference remained after Dr. Franklin adjusted her analysis to exclude differences in health insurance and parent education.
These differences warrant urgent investigation, Dr. Franklin says.
It might be that regression among minority children is over-represented in medical records because, on average, it takes more dramatic symptoms – such as regression – for these children to get diagnosed and receive medical care. “We’ve long been aware that Hispanic and African American individuals tend to be diagnosed later and have less access to medical resources for not only autism but also many health conditions,” Dr. Franklin says.
“Certainly, this is another reason why physicians should not be dismissing any parent’s concerns about lost skills,” she adds.
It’s also possible that ethnic groups truly differ in regression rates because of differences in unknown genetic or environmental risk factors for autism. However, research has never indicated any particular risk factor for regressive forms of autism.
“We don’t yet understand why children regress in the first place,” Dr. Franklin says. “We certainly need more research to understand why there might be ethnic differences.”
In describing her research, Dr. Franklin highlighted the important role played by the Autism Speaks ATN patient registry:
“As physicians, we’re able to use this large database of information to figure out what’s happening with our patients and how we can best help them,” she explains. “It’s wonderful to be part of a network that enables us to conduct research while helping patients.”
Learn more about Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
Autism Speaks launched its Early Access to Care Initiative to better identify and address barriers to diagnosis and treatment of autism in underserved communities. Read more about its related research projects here.