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Severe Autism in Immigrant and Minority Families

Study finds high rates of severe autism with intellectual disability among children of foreign-born mothers from several world regions
June 23, 2014

A new study has found high rates of autism – especially severely disabling types of autism complicated by intellectual disability – among the children of foreign-born mothers who are black, Latin American, Filipino or Vietnamese.

The study, by investigators at the University of California-Los Angeles, appears today in Pediatrics.

“Epidemiology has a long tradition of using migration studies to understand how environmental and genetic factors contribute to disease risk in populations,” said senior author Beate Ritz, head of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. “The fact that 22 percent of six year olds born in the United States have immigrant parents opens a unique opportunity for us to consider the influence of nativity, race and ethnicity.”

“This study supports the findings of earlier research on immigrant communities in the United States and elsewhere,” comments epidemiologist Michael Rosanoff, Autism Speaks associate director for public health research. “For instance, recent research supported by Autism Speaks found high rates of autism with intellectual disability among Somali immigrants in the Minneapolis area.” (Learn more about the Minneapolis Somali Autism Prevalence Project here.)

Further research is needed to determine the underlying causes, the experts agree. Some evidence suggests that maternal stress and vitamin D deficiencies may play a role, particularly among immigrants from impoverished or war-torn regions.

“We need to follow up on these and other possibilities if we wish to better understand and address these issues,” Rosanoff says.

The researchers also took a fresh look at autism rates among US-born blacks and Hispanics. Experts have long suspected that low reported rates of autism in these groups stem largely from barriers to diagnosis and healthcare. In these groups, too, the UCLA researchers found higher rates of severe autism than seen in the overall US population. But this higher risk emerged only after they adjusted for maternal age and indicators of economic status including parent education and health-insurance. Such factors tend to differ between minority and white communities, they note.

Autism Speaks continues to focus on improving access to early diagnosis and treatment among underserved communities through its Early Access to Care program.

“Multiple studies have shown that black and Latino children are under identified, diagnosed later and, once diagnosed, receive poorer quality of care,” says Autism Speaks Vice President for Community Affairs Jamitha Fields. “Autism Speaks’ Early Access to Care initiative seeks to increase access to high-quality early intervention for all children on the autism spectrum.”

Learn more about Early Access to Care and access resources for your family and community here.

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Autism Speaks' Michael Rosanoff for its news coverage of this study: "Autism Rates Higher Among Certain Immigrants/Minorities.

Note: Bilingual Autism Response Team coordinators are available to provide resources and information to families and professionals in Spanish. Please call 888-772-9050 or email