According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 110 children in the United States is affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and the rates are rapidly increasing. ASD can affect human development in a variety of ways and may interfere with an individual’s social interactions. While no single cause of autism has been discovered, trends have shown possible relationships between ASD and certain other conditions such as Down Syndrome.
It can often be difficult for parents to realize that their child is autistic. Some children may, at first, appear to be shy or have difficulty focusing before receiving the diagnosis. Although relatively little is known about ASD, symptoms of ASD usually become most obvious during early childhood (2 to 6 years old). Diagnosing ASD can be complex, however, because many of its symptoms often coexist with other health problems such as seizures, gastrointestinal issues, sleep issues and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD), and therefore may be associated with these other conditions.
An earlier diagnosis gives parents and medical professionals more time to build an education and therapy plan that will best cater to the child’s needs for the future. However, the social and environmental factors influencing autistic children can greatly impact their treatment plans and management as they grow into adulthood.
A recent study published in Pediatrics done by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), however, showed that there were racial and ethnic disparities in the number of autistic children who went to see a specialist. This study of over 3,500 autistic children found that while 37 percent of white children saw specialists, only 30 percent of African American autistic children received specialized care. The greatest disparity came in children who saw a gastroenterologist, with 14 of white children and only 10 percent of Hispanic children and 9 percent of African American children receiving care.
A 2002 study from the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry identified an additional inequality; Medicaid-eligible white children were usually diagnosed earlier than Medicaid-eligible minority children with autism.
Although exact reasons behind these findings were not cited in the studies, researchers from the MGH study have hypothesized as to why minority autistic children are less likely to receive specialized care. Possible explanations include health care accessibility and cultural competency issues that would prevent minority families from following up with specialists that they are referred to, and/or differing frequencies of doctor referrals to appropriate services. A paper that was published in early 2012 also found that there may be differences in autism symptoms between non-minority and minority children based on cultural and linguistic gaps between parents and health care professionals.
With the growing rates of ASD in the United States, it is important to notice the emerging disparities in our communities. We need to better understand some of the challenges that Hispanic and African American families may be facing when accessing services so that we can ensure that all autistic children are receiving the best quality care that they can.
To achieve wellness, it is important to consider social factors in addition to treatment and care in order to ensure health equity for all. Not only do we need to make health professionals more aware of the disparities that may be afflicting minority communities, we also need to ensure that minority communities are able to access all the services they may need.
Take action! End health and healthcare disparities among minority communities by joining the National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities (NPA).
For more information about autism, please check out http://www.autismspeaks.org
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