While U.S. schools are identifying a growing number of students with autism, Latino and black students are far less likely to be identified and receive services than are white children, a new study shows. Indeed, the gap grew significantly between 2000 and 2007, the researchers found. Yet there’s no reason to believe that autism occurs at lower rates among minority children.
The researchers examined autism-identification rates in schools across all 50 states in 2000 and 2007. Overall, the percentage of children identified by their schools as having autism increased three-fold between those two years. However, the increase was much smaller for black and Latino students.
This racial gap varied widely among states.
“We found prevalence rates for 2007 as low as 0.1 percent for Latinos and as high as 1.4 percent for white students,” the researchers write. However, in no state did schools identify autism in Latino students at rates close to those of whites. In some states, autism identification among black students matched or rose above rates for white students. But nationwide, rates remained significantly lower for black than white students.
“This study gives us further insight into racial disparities in the identification of children on the autism spectrum – both across state education systems and over several years,” comments Amy Daniels, Autism Speaks assistant director for public health research. (Autism Speaks was not involved in the study.) “In many ways, this parallels what we’re seeing in the health care system – where autism tends to be diagnosed significantly later and at lower rates among children in minority communities.”
Adds Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks assistant director for education research: “These findings suggest that our education system is not providing appropriate services to students of all ethnic groups. Despite a federal special-education mandate, this study suggests that access to these services differs widely from state to state and from one ethnic group to another.” Dr. Murillo says she’s particularly concerned about the possibility that many minority students with autism are being misdiagnosed. “Are these children being labeled emotionally disturbed?” she asks. “Are they being placed in inappropriate classrooms that fail to address underlying causes for the challenging behaviors they may have?”
The study’s lead researcher, Jason Travers, is a special-education researcher at the University of Kansas. He says he is planning further research to identify why such disparities arise in schools. In particular, he is exploring the feasibility of gathering information from individual school districts and counties to analyze possible influences including teacher quality and average neighborhood income.
Meanwhile, the experts concur in urging schools and states to make every effort to more consistently and reliably identify autism among all students in order to provide services that can improve learning and outcomes.
Learn more about Autism Speaks’ efforts to improve early diagnosis and access to autism services among underserved communities through its Early Access to Care Initiative and its partnership with the National Black Church Initiative.