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Autism: Why Children of Color Are Often Diagnosed Too Late


Autism is often in the media, since experts are constantly trying to find causes of the disease, as well as cures for autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that one in 68 children in America lives with autism. The condition also causes constant struggles for these children, and can be as varied as the children themselves.

Autism, which is technically referred to as autism-spectrum disorder, is a condition in which a person has a hard time engaging in two-way communication. Autism is especially evident when people with the condition try to interact successfully with others in social situations. The symptoms and severity of autism can differ (which is why it is considered a spectrum disorder). However, the decoding the emotions and intentions of other people is difficult for people who suffer from autism.

Those with autism also find it challenging to engage in small talk, and some people with autism don’t speak at all. Many people with autism have to stick to a daily routine, or are intently focused on a specific group of interests.

There is no known “cure” for autism, although some individuals have found success with dietary changes and behavioral therapy. The cause of autism may come down to hundred of factors. However, it is very important that people with autism are diagnosed as early as possible, so that they can take advantage of effective educational, therapeutic and medical resources.

Although autism presents significant challenges for anyone who suffers from the condition (and their families), it appears that African-American children, as well as other children of color, are among those who are most severely affected.

The Delay in Diagnosis for Children of Color

The bottom line is that African-American children are simply not getting an autism diagnosis as quickly as white children. The CDC asserts that while many children receive the diagnosis around four years of age, researchers have found that African-American children are often diagnosed 18 to 24 months later.

While this may not seem like much of a delay, it is critical. The first two years of a child’s life are crucial for brain development. This is the time when children are learning basic language and social skills, and are starting to engage in play and conversation.

It has also been documented that African-American and Hispanic children who have autism are referred to a specialist less often. These children are also less likely to get medical tests than white children. Research also suggests that when African-American children do get a referral and go to a health professional to be treated for autism, the child is often misdiagnosed with another condition, such as a behavioral disorder or ADHD.

Is Autism Different for African-American Children?

While this is a controversial topic, there have been very few studies on the autism in children of color. This indicates that autism may be different for African-Americans. It is also possible that the differences could be a result of the varied economic, social and cultural differences that African-American children are exposed to. No one knows for sure, but it is possible that these factors contribute to the reasons that children of color experience autism differently.

Even though there is limited research, the findings do indicate that there are some key differences in what autism actually looks like for children who are African-American. One of the findings is that “regressive” autism, which is characterized by loss of language skills and social competency, after these skills had already been developed. This is twice as likely to happen in African-American children as it is in white children.

There is also a large study that suggests that African-American children with autism are likely to demonstrate aggressive or difficult behaviors. Another study indicates that minority children who have autism seem to have more intense issues with communication and language than their white peers. The authors of this study wondered whether these signs were not recognized by parents.

The cause of these findings is not yet known. Like autism, these findings may be the result of both environment and genetics. Since there is very little research on African-American children and autism, these findings are not often further investigated.

Specialists like Dr. Daniel Geschwind, a UCLA professor of psychiatry, neurology and genetics, has conducted a five-year genetic study on autism in African-Americans. Dr. Geschwind hopes that the findings will fill the void in scientific findings, and provide answers to the complex questions that other researchers have posed.

Minimal Research on African-Americans and Autism

Aside from the UCLA study, most of the research in genetics concerning autism has focused only on Caucasian children. It is actually a rarity to find a study in which African-American children are included. The research that does not focus on African-American children may also demonstrate results that don’t apply to children of color. This, of course, has a profound impact on autism diagnosis and services for minority children. If scientists don’t fully understand the nuances that impact children of color, it is difficult for these professionals to provide clear treatment options and proper diagnoses.

As more and more people are being diagnosed with autism, scientists and institutions are missing the opportunity to study such a distinct and unique demographic of the autism spectrum: minority children. This not only complicates the mission of advancing effective autism treatment, but it continues to worsen the health disparities for children with autism who are African-American.


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