Research Tuesday – Racial Disparity in Autism Identification

June 10, 2014 BY Kelly C. Bawden, MS, CCC-SLP

Boy . . . this Research Tuesday crept up on me big time. But sometimes, when you’re in a pinch, the universe helps out a little bit, and I feel like that’s what happened with this article. It isn’t something that I’d necessarily seek out, but ended up being a great thing to read and I’m excited to share it here!

The Details: Travers, J. C., M. Tincani, and M. P. Krezmien. “A Multiyear National Profile of Racial Disparity in Autism Identification.”The Journal of Special Education 47.1 (2013): 41-49.

The Question: While the issue of over- and under-identifying students as it relates to their race has been studied quite a bit, the authors felt that it had not yet been studied with particular regards to autism (ASD). The authors sought to identify the degree to which racially-diverse students are over- or -under-identified with ASD. They were also interested in whether the proportions changed over time.

The Method: Data regarding the special education eligibility and demographic information of students were taken from the Annual Reports to Congress on the Implementation of IDEA and from the Department of Education website. Data was collected for the years between 1998 and 2006. The researchers used the data to calculate “the percentage of all enrolled students from a racial group with a specific disability,” “the proportion of the odds between two groups,” and a logistic regression analysis “to understand the relationship differences in prevalence of autism by race and changes in the prevalence by race over time,” (43). 

The Results: There was a statistically significant difference between racial groups with regards to the identification of ASD as a special education category. Specifically:

  • an overall under-representation of students of color in the category of ASD
  • the percentage of White students identified with ASD increased over the time period studied (4x greater in 2006 than in 1998). By 2006, White students were more likely to be identified with ASD than any other racial group.
  • the percentage of Hispanic and American Indian students identified with ASD was lower than students on the whole, and significantly lower than White students.
  • the percentage of Black students identified with ASD was initially higher than in other racial groups in 1998-99 (over-representation), but over time that percentage decreased, resulting in significant underrepresentation 2006.

The authors offer several identified with ID instead, students of color less likely to seek medical diagnosis .  . . later identified or mis-identified

The Take-Away: I found it interesting that the research thus far has argued that racially diverse students are less likely to be over-identified with ASD (vs. other disability categories like Intellectual Disability or Learning Disability) because the diagnostic criteria are thought to be less likely to be influenced by “social variables.” Given the results of this study, the authors question that assumption, and I tend to agree. They mention the possibility that students of color, especially Black students, are being identified as having an Intellectual Disability (ID) rather than ASD. In my gut, that feels like at least a partial truth. I don’t think that special ed teams, including SLPs, are consciously excluding students of color from the category of ASD. This study makes me wonder, though, if what I think ASD looks like is influenced by my own race (White) and if there might be changes to my practice that might help mitigate any racial bias I bring to the table when I am doing an ASD eval. This will all take more thought, but for now, just knowing that these discrepancies exist can only help improve my evaluation practices and skills.