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Study: Minority Students Less Likely to Be Identified With Autism

The rates of autism for students of all races is on the increase, but students who are black, Hispanic, or American Indian are less likely to be identified with the disability compared to white and Asian students, according to a study published this month in The Journal of Special Education.

The study, "A Multiyear National Profile of Racial Disparity in Autism Identification," compiled information collected by the federal government from 1998 to 2006 on the race and disability category of students in special education. Using that information, the researchers were able to calculate a "risk index," or the percentage of all enrolled students from a racial group with a specific disability.

The overall risk of being categorized as having autism increased for all racial groups over that time period, from 0.09 percent to 0.37 percent. That increase reflects the increase in autism prevalence.

However, white students were twice as likely to be identified as having an autism spectrum disorder as students who were Hispanic or American Indian/Alaska Native. For Hispanic and American Indian students, the likelihood of autism diagnosis lagged behind the rate for students overall for every year researchers examined.

In 1998 and 1999, black students were more likely than the overall student population to be categorized as having autism. But for the rest of the years captured by the study, they became less likely than the overall student population to carry that diagnosis. In other words, though every group's rate was going up, the rates of groups other than black students was increasing much faster. That switch from overrepresentation to underrepresentation was "pretty remarkable," said study lead author Jason Travers, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The data don't explain why this might be happening, but some hypotheses are that minority students are being diagnosed with disabilities other than autism or they may be getting identified later than their white peers.

Asian students' risk of being diagnosed with autism is also higher than that of the overall student population for all of the years that were studied, coming very close to the risk index for white students.

Potential underrepresentation matters, Travers said, because early identification and treatment of autism is considered essential for best outcomes. (I explored this issue in an April blog post, also on minority underrepresentation.)

Assessing and identifying minority students "requires a great deal of cultural competence, to ensure disadvantaged children are not restricted from early intervention services," he said.

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