Boys in SchoolChildren from different racial backgrounds have different probabilities of being identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers from University of Massachuetts-Amherst, Binghamton University, and Temple University compared the rate at which schools in the United States identify white, black, and Hispanic children with ASD. They find schools identify many more white children with ASD than black or Hispanic children. The results suggest that black and Hispanic children may not be receiving the same level of services as their white peers.

The research team analyzed the identification rate for ASD of white, black, and Hispanic children in 50 states and the District of Columbia from the years 2000 to 2007. They focused their analysis on schools’ administrative identification of ASD. Administrative identification of ASD indicates whether a student is considered autistic under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The researchers note that an administrative identification is not the same as a diagnosis. Schools may not have a trained clinician, but may still identify a student with ASD. The criteria for administrative identification of ASD vary from state to state.

Between 2000 and 2007, the rate of administrative identification of ASD increased for white children in all states and the District of Columbia. For black students, the rate of administrative identification of ASD increased in all states except for Alaska and Montana. For Hispanic students, the rate increased in all states except Kentucky, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia. Although all groups saw increases, the administrative identification rates increased at a much smaller rate for black and Hispanic children than for white children. Black and Hispanic children were identified with ASD at rates lower than the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimate that 1 in 68 have ASD.

The study’s authors state that “Nearly every state that had proportional representation of students in 2000 underidentified black and Hispanic students in 2007. Although there is no firm epidemiological evidence that race is predictive of autism, we found substantial racial differences in the way U.S. [schools] identify students with autism.”

The findings call into question the methods by which schools identify ASD in students. Because white children are more frequently identified as autistic, the findings suggest that school services are not equally distributed among students of different races. Black and Hispanic students may be less likely to receive early interventions than their black and Hispanic peers.

This research is published in the Journal of Special Education.

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