The gap in the rates of autism between white and Hispanic children is narrowing, according to a study.

The prevalence of autism among white children in the U.S. is 1 in 100, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But among Hispanics it is 1 in 170. In the study, researchers examined nearly 400,000 birth records and data from early-intervention programs taken from 2001 to 2005 in Massachusetts.

According to the data from 2001, white children had the highest rates of autism, 90 percent higher than Hispanic children. By 2005, there was virtually no difference.

Experts say it’s because of the improved ability to diagnose the disorder.

“This is good news that we are identifying Hispanic children with autism early,” said José Cordero, the vice chairman of the board of directors of the Autism Society.

Autism is hard to define, which is why many experts call it “autism spectrum disorder” to indicate that there are a range of multiple developmental disorders that can span from very mild to severe. The conditions affect social behavior or communication and, depending upon severity, may be hard to recognize before the age of 3.

The results of the study were likely influenced by a few factors that helped practitioners more uniformly identify autism. During the study, Massachusetts introduced support for early intervention programs that not only helped them implement standardized ways to diagnose autism, they also helped improve noticing warning signs. On the national level, pediatric guidelines for diagnosis were introduced, routine screenings were being adopted and parental awareness campaigns were taking off.

Diagnoses and resulting early intervention has been linked to an increase in a patient’s success, including IQ gains and the ability to be in less restrictive classroom settings.

“This [study] really speaks to the success of [early intervention] efforts,”
said Susan Manning who led the research and was a maternal and child health epidemiologist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at the time the research was conducted.

While this research shows positive steps are being taken to address autism in the Latino population, how this syndrome presents itself in this ethnic community -- and what that means for patient care -- is being investigated in other studies across the country.

For example, Latino children with autism tend to score significantly lower in their cognitive tests than their white counterparts. Some research is exploring whether that difference could be attributed to bilingualism.

“In [published research] you start getting the feeling that Hispanics have more severe cognitive disabilities,” said Virginia Chaidez, who is a researcher at UC Davis who has focused on health issues in the Latino community.  “But the measure being used weighs heavily on language. [Practitioners] may need to be aware that if a child is multilingual ... their cognitive abilities develop differently and they need to keep an eye on the kid a little closer.”

Regardless of the questions that remain unanswered, experts in the field of autism say there has been significant progress in care.

Cordero has been a pediatrician for 30 years. In that time things have changed greatly.

“No one wanted to speak about autism because there was very little people thought that could be done,” said Cordero. “The message today is that there is great hope. There are different strategies that can help and early recognition is crucial.”

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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