Friday, November 7, 2014

Black, Hispanic kids underrepresented in autism identification - We keep talking, but there's not real change. Sad

Black, Hispanic kids underrepresented in  autism identification - We keep talking, but there's not real change. Sad

The number of children diagnosed with autism has increased in recent years, but a new study co-authored by a University of Kansas professor shows that while the number of students with

autism increased in every state from 2000 to 2007, black and Hispanic children were

significantly underrepresented. Jason Travers, assistant professor of special

education, co-authored a study that analyzed administrative identification of autism in every

state under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for the years 2000 and 2007. The

disparity in the odds of white students identified compared with minorities might reflect a similar

phenomenon associated with the widespread increase in students diagnosed with learning

disabilities in the late '70s and attention deficit hyper disorder in the '90s, the authors argue, and

also shows that minority students probably are not getting the same services as their peers.

Travers has studied autism and diagnosis rates previously and noticed discrepancies in

the number of students diagnosed. The Centers for Disease Control have estimated that one in 68

children have autism. "That's a pretty alarming number," Travers said of the CDC

figure. "I wanted to see if there were differences in these rates. Previous research had found that

African-Americans were over-identified. But the data I was looking at showed they were under-
identified. This was during an era when autism prevalence rates were increasing across the

board." Travers and colleagues Michael Krezmien of the University of Massachusetts-
Amherst, Candace Mulcahy of Binghamton University and Matthew Tincani of Temple

University examined autism identification rates from schools in all 50 states in 2000 and 2007

for the study, published in the Journal of Special Education. The study was started while Travers

was a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Administrative

identification reflects rates at which schools—not necessarily a clinician—identify a child as

having autism. Widely varying criteria from state to state are part of the problem, the authors

state, but not the full story. White students identified as autistic increased from 2000 to 2007 in

all states and the District of Columbia. The number of African-Americans identified increased in

all states except Alaska and Montana, and the number of Hispanics increased in all states except

Kentucky, Louisiana and the District of Columbia. While counts in all categories showed an

increase, black and Hispanic increased at much smaller rates, and all three increased at lower

numbers than predicted by the CDC. "Nearly every state that had proportional

representation of students in 2000 underidentified black and Hispanic students in 2007,"

the authors wrote. "Although there is no firm epidemiological evidence that race is predictive

of autism, we found substantial racial differences in the ways U.S. school identify students with

autism." The discrepancies indicate a number of problems, Travers said. Chief

among them, regardless of why white students are being identified with autism at higher rates,

the results may mean services are not equally accessible among the races. When more students

of one race are being identified, more services for autism will go to those students, and not to

students and schools that are underrepresented. Critics have claimed that white students are

being overidentified or that administrative diagnoses rates are not reliable. "These data

depict what's going on in schools," Travers said. "Whether or not they match with clinical

diagnoses, the numbers can be associated with a variety of costs. They tell us about the human

costs, financial resources dedicated to services, administrative costs, community costs and many

others." The disparities also suggest that white students are more likely to access

early intensive behavior intervention services, educational supports, occupational supports and

others designed for students with autism than their black and Hispanic peers.

Travers intends to address the disparities in future research and develop more accurate methods

to predict disparities in rates of autism. One possibility is to gather data from school districts,

counties and states across the country on the number of students with autism and analyze other

demographics such as neighborhood median income, teacher quality, number of students that

qualify for free and reduced lunches, staff turnover and numerous other factors. He would then

compare that data to U.S. Census information to develop advanced statistical models that could

more accurately predict indicators for autism numbers in schools. "I'm not convinced

we thoroughly understand this problem in special education right now," Travers said. "I think

what's needed is advanced statistical models that can more accurately identify predictors

associated with identification." In addition, schools and states need to identify

consistent methods of identifying autism. The longer they go without, and the more prevalence

numbers are used for political purposes, the greater the inequity will be for minority students, as

the data suggests. "Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, until this problem is

thoroughly understood and scientifically validated methods to prevent the problem are identified,

it seems that the majority of the un- or mis-identified students with autism will be children of

color," the authors wrote.

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