Racial Disparities in Autism Diagnoses

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

As behavior analysts, we know that three selective processes influence behavior.  Biological selection, based on survival of the species, influences our genetic susceptibilities to our environment.  Operant selection occurs within the lifetime of an individual and is concerned with the rates of behavior or learning across the lifespan.  Cultural selection concerns the transmission of stimuli, information, and traditions between groups.   Skinner (1981) nicely outlined the interplay of these processes in his classic paper, published in Science.

We can apply Skinner’s model to the world around us, and recent work on the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder highlights that the act of giving a diagnosis is itself behavior nested within a host of cultural setting factors that influence its prevalence.  For example, a recent study by Durkin and team investigated the role of Socio-Economic Status (SES) and race in the prevalence of autism diagnoses.  They reviewed data from 2002-2010, a time in which Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses in children more than doubled.

Results suggested that “ASD increased with increasing SES during each surveillance year among White, Black, and Hispanic children.”  Trends suggest increasing prevalence fairly equally across high-, middle-, and low SES.

However, they found “significant racial/ethnic differences in ADS prevalence” within the data, with white children more likely to receive a diagnosis than black and Hispanic children.  Moreover,  “the difference in prevalence between low- and high-income white children decreased over the study period” whereas disparities remained the same among blacks and Hispanics, according to SpectrumNews.

However, “the rate of autism among black children in the high socioeconomic group was higher than that among white or Hispanic children” even though they are more likely to be in the low socioeconomic group.

In short, these data and others suggest that we may not have a good handle on the true prevalence of ASD given such cultural influences.  To read more on this, including additional research on the issue, check out SpectrumNews and the original study by Durgin published in the American Journal of Public Health.

What are your thoughts on ASD diagnoses?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org

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