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Autism often goes undetected in Black children

Freddie Allen | 6/16/2013, 7:35 p.m. | Updated on 6/17/2013, 6:32 p.m.
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity release balloons Sept. 19, 2012, to raise awareness for autism on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus in Nacogdoches, Texas. Fraternity president, Alexander Evans organised the event to honor his younger brother who has been diagnosed with a form of autism. Gabrielle Rambo of the The Daily Sentinel

Blacks and low-income families often lack access to adequate health care, which could delay an autism diagnosis. When Black children only see the doctor when they get sick, it’s harder for a physician to track a child’s progress.

Landa co-authored a 2012 paper, titled “Differences in Autism Symptoms Between Minority and Non-Minority Toddlers,” based on her research that reported:

  • “When minority children eventually diagnosed with ASD see health care professionals, they are more likely to receive a diagnosis other than autism.”
  • Black children who presented signs of ASD, “were usually diagnosed with ADHD, conduct disorder or adjustment disorder on their first specialty health care visit.”

Alycia Halladay, senior director of environmental and clinical sciences for Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy group, said that children with autism from minority communities aren’t being recognized quickly enough.

“If these groups were traditionally underserved and not able to receive the same level of health care or awareness services that other people had, we felt like it was an obligation to ensure that there was equal access,” Halladay said.

Autism Speaks recently launched an advertising campaign, in an effort to increase awareness of autism in minority communities. Working with the Ad Council, Autism Speaks distributed advertising program kits and PSAs to more than 30,000 media outlets. Billboards and bus shelters featuring African American and Hispanic images and autism messages were also distributed nationwide. The ads and PSAs will run in donated space, so the advocacy group has almost zero control over when and where the ads will run or if they will run at all. According to the group, a similar campaign geared towards a general audience was successful with increasing awareness about autism.

Martin said that she’s glad to see that Autism Speaks launched the campaign for minorities, but she wonders if the ads will hit their target.

Shortly after her son’s diagnosis, Martin discovered a lack of access to resources and education for children and parents living with autism tailored to fit the needs of low-income and minority communities. In 2005, she founded the Special Needs Network to fill that void.

“I work at a grassroots level and reaching our community is a lot of work,” Martin said. “Where we get our news and where we get our information is often very different and a lot of times organizations miss the mark.”

Martin continued: “Are those ads going to be in Black newspapers that are handed out in Black churches or on radio stations in Black markets? Are the ads going to come on while people are watching Love and Hip Hop Atlanta?”

An ad running in the mainstream media on a major network at a certain time of day just isn’t going to reach Black and Latino families, Martin said.

“What we need to do now is empower parents to be their child’s advocate to let them know where to go for information and how to find the navigators in their community,” Landa said.

As one of those navigators, Martin knows that autism awareness often competes with a myriad of issues affecting poor and minority families.

“Autism is only one issue. When you’re serving low-income and underserved communities, they’re dealing with transportation, housing, employment. So, many other issues,” Martin said. “Autism just becomes one of a lot of issues that a family is dealing with. It has to be a very coordinated strategy to reach that family and get to that child.”

Martin continued: “For many parents, when they get the diagnosis they feel that in some ways it’s a death sentence. It’s not, there’s hope.”