Autism Symptoms Aren't Color-blind

Developmental delays more pronounced in minority children with autism but reasons unclear

(RxWiki News) Various medical diseases sometimes differ in the way their symptoms and levels of severity show up in different ethnicities. It appears that autism may be such a condition.

A recent study shows significant variation in the delays in language, communication and gross motor skills between minority and non-minority children on the autism spectrum.

"Ask your pediatrician about your child's developmental milestones."

The incidence of autism is similar in all ethnic and racial groups, but previous research has revealed that minority children - those from Black, Hispanic or Asian backgrounds - are less likely to be diagnosed as early as Caucasian children.

Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, led a study to find out how possible variations in symptoms played a part in this diagnostic discrepancy.

Landa and her colleagues investigated 84 children with on the autism spectrum who ranged from 26 to 28 months old.

They used three standard tests, one evaluated by their caregivers and two by the researchers, for determining the children's levels of development.

The development of Caucasian toddlers was compared to the development of Black, Asian and Hispanic toddlers.

Even when controlling for the socioeconomic status of the kids, Landa's team found a significant difference between the development of the minority children and the non-minority children.

"We found the toddlers in the minority group were significantly further behind than the non-minority group in development of language and motor skills and showed more severe autism symptoms in their communication abilities," Landa said.

"It's really troubling when we look at these data alongside diagnosis statistics because they suggest that children in need of early detection and intervention are not getting it," she added.

Landa's previous research has shown that children can be diagnosed with autism as early as 14 months old, and early detection is essential for early intervention.

It appears that minority children may not be receiving a diagnosis of autism early enough to receive the same intervention that white children are receiving after an early diagnosis.

Landa said the disparity between when minority children are diagnosed and when white children are diagnosed could stem from cultural differences.

Different communities may have divergent perceptions of typical versus atypical development in children,

Further, some cultures may have a greater stigma surrounding disabilities and slower development, so Landa suggests that education and awareness could go a long way in these communities.

Landa said her research findings suggest that some of the developmental differences have a biological underpinning, but more research is needed to find out whether this is the case and, if so, how and why.

"There are other complex diseases that present differently in different ethnic groups and more research is needed to investigate this possibility," Landa said.

"Although questions remain on why these differences exist, by taking steps to develop more culturally-sensitive screening and assessment practices, with a special focus on educating parents, clinicians and health educators, I believe we can empower parents to identify early warning signs and ensure minority children have the same access to services as their Caucasian peers," she said.

The research was published online ahead of print February 21 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

It was funded through a National Institute of Mental Health grant, the Maternal and Child Health Research Program, Health Resources and Services Administration, a Department of Health and Human Services grant and the Krieger Foundation. No researcher conflicts of interest were noted.