Diagnosis and Discipline

For a student with autism, diagnosis is always a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, an official diagnosis may result in access to services such as ABA (for good or ill), speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc.; and for accommodations at school such as classroom aides, extended time on tests, access to quiet rooms, etc.  It offers some legal protections against suspension or expulsion from school.  At the same time, autism obviously carries a profound stigma in American society.  In school, the child who has an autism diagnosis is often regarded by administrators, teachers and staff as different and potentially dangerous.  Non-verbal autistics are usually assigned to special education classrooms, or even separate schools, where they usually receive only a limited academic education, regardless of their actual intelligence and potential.  And despite privacy rules, autistic children’s diagnoses far too often become known to their fellow students, resulting in bullying.

Many parents are aware of these problems, and struggle with deciding what is best for their child, or sometimes what is best for the parents themselves, or for the rest of the child’s family.  Should they seek a diagnosis or not?  And if they do receive a diagnosis from a doctor or psychologist, should they share it with the school?  Does their child’s need for services, accommodations, and protection outweigh the potential impact of stigma?  But parental anxiety about stigma is only one of many factors affecting whether a child is diagnosed.  Sex, socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, immigrant status, language and cultural differences, and even the place where a child lives, all play a role in determining who will be diagnosed and who will not.

“Four times as many boys as girls have autism.”  This has been repeated so often that it may be treated as a simple fact.[1]  But the correct formulation should actually be that “four times as many boys as girls receive autism diagnoses.”  We simply don’t know how many girls have autism.  What we do know now, though, is that many girls on the spectrum remain undiagnosed because parents, psychologists and pediatricians don’t know what autism looks like in girls.[2]   For example: parents and care-givers are more likely to become concerned and more likely to seek a professional diagnosis when children engage in “externalizing” (aggressive) behaviors.  But because girls are less likely than boys to behave aggressively, parents may not realize the extent to which they are “different” from other children, and as a result, their daughters may not be tested for autism until they reach school age or even beyond.[3]  In addition, most parents and professionals still don’t realize that autistic girls are better at “camouflaging” or “passing” than autistic boys, because they are likely to imitate the behavior of those around them (even if they don’t understand the reasons for that behavior), whereas boys are more likely to simply withdraw from social interactions altogether.[4] The standard diagnostic criteria for autism present additional problems.[5]  Engagement in repetitive behaviors has long been a key criterion.  But autistic girls are less likely to engage in repetitive behaviors than boys—and even when they do, these behaviors may appear at first glance to be normal for young females.  Autistic girls may collect dolls or devote lots of time to coloring pictures.  What parents and the professional responsible for diagnosis often don’t realize is that these girls are not playing with the dolls, but rather lining them up according to the color of their dresses; they are filling their coloring books with intricate patterns that have little to do with what’s going on in the pictures.[6]  As a result of these and other factors, girls are generally diagnosed at a later age than boys, and may remain undiagnosed into adulthood, even when they are quite severely affected by autism.”[7]

Coming from a poor family also makes it less likely that an autistic child will receive a diagnosis.  As one study found:  “ . . . the proportion of children in poverty receiving services or supplementary income because of ASD was lower than the proportion expected on the basis of estimates of the prevalence of ASD in the general population.”[8]  While autism diagnoses have increased rapidly in recent years, the increase has been much lower for the poor than for other income groups.[9]  This is almost certainly because access to health care (and therefore medical sources of diagnosis) is much more limited for the poor in the United States, than for the middle and upper class.  In countries with universal health care, such as Sweden and France, such differences do not exist.[10]

Children of color are less likely than white kids to be diagnosed with autism.  They are also more likely than white kids to be diagnosed late (after they have started school), or simply mis-diagnosed as having emotional or behavioral problems. The time from when parents become concerned to when the child receives an official diagnosis (if they ever do) is significantly longer for children of color than for whites.  Even when socio-economic status and levels of parental education are factored in, these disparities remain.  Among children of color, those most likely to be diagnosed are those with lower (or apparently lower) IQs, while those with the “milder phenotype” of autism (what used to be called Aspergers syndrome) remain under-identified. Fewer children of color receive early intervention services (such as ABA or TEACCH) for autism, and when they do receive services, it is generally for fewer hours a week. Once they reach school age, they are more likely than white kids to be identified as having “behavior problems” and are over-represented in school services targeting behavior (as opposed to social skills or learning techniques). [11]  High levels of poverty in these communities, as well as prejudice, contribute to these disparities.  Racial disparities in diagnosis and services affect all non-white children, but some groups—especially Hispanics and African-Americans—are more seriously affected than others.

Immigrant families may be poor and they may belong to racial or ethnic minorities, but they also face problems in receiving accurate diagnoses for their children simply because they are immigrants.  Language differences can be a significant barrier, because so many of the diagnostic tools for autism are based on instruments originally written in English, and perhaps unavailable in, or poorly translated into, other languages.  (Some immigrants may also be unable to read or write.)  Lack of familiarity with American medical and educational systems may play a role, as do those systems lack of familiarity with other cultures.  For example:  many American practitioners view a child who is unwilling to make eye contact with them as potentially autistic.  However, in many immigrant communities, children are taught that it is rude to look directly into an adult’s eyes.  Some of the testing used to detect autism looks at children’s interactions with toys—but immigrant children may have never seen the toys presented to them, and may have no idea how to play with them “appropriately.”[12]  It is also possible that cultural differences may shape an immigrant family’s decision to seek a diagnosis. One study found that Korean-American families in New York City were often reluctant to seek diagnosis (or even discuss autism with others), because of the shame having a disabled child might bring on their family.[13]  This, and other similar studies, must be treated with caution, however, because they tend to be based on interviews with a very small sample of people, who may not be representative of the group as a whole.  However, it is certainly possible that cultural differences play a role in immigrant families’ decision to seek a diagnosis.

Finally, there is the question of whether families who want a diagnosis and who have enough resources to get one can find someone to provide it.  Other things (wealth, English language competency, etc.) being equal, it is not very difficult to find a doctor or psychologist able to diagnose autism in most of America’s big cities.  However, one recent, if somewhat controversial, study, has identified a multitude of “diagnosis deserts,” especially in rural or thinly populated parts of the United States.  80% of U.S. counties have no autism diagnostic clinics.[14]  Families from these areas have to either travel long distances to find a qualified diagnostician, or wait until their children are old enough to receive diagnoses and services from local school systems.

Disparities in the ability to get an autism diagnosis are significant, and they have significant implications as well.  In my next post I will concentrate on just one issue—the impact of having/not having an autism diagnosis on school discipline.

[1] E.g., “What is Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention website (current):  https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html;  Deane Morrison, “Why Autism Strikes Mostly Boys,” University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice-President for Research’s website (November 27, 1917): https://research.umn.edu/inquiry/post/why-autism-strikes-mostly-boys;

[2] Sylvie Goldman, “Sex, Gender, and the Diagnosis of Autism—A Biosocial View of the Male Preponderance,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 7 (2013), 675-679; Lauren Little, et al., “Do early caregiver concerns differ for girls with autism spectrum disorders?” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 21 (2017), 728-32;

[3] Jorieke Duvocot, et al., “Factors Influencing the Probability of a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Girls versus Boys,” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 21 (2017), 646-58.

[4] Rachel Hiller, Robyn Young, and Nathan Weber, “Sex Differences in Pre-Diagnosis Concerns for Children Later Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 20 (2016), 75-84.

[5] Although this view remains somewhat controversial.  Compare two recent articles in Spectrum News:  Nicholette Zeliadt, “Diagnostic Tests Miss Autism Features in Girls” (May 13, 2017): https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/diagnostic-tests-miss-autism-features-girls/; and Hannah Furfaro, “Diagnostic tests don’t miss girls with autism, study suggests”: https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/diagnostic-tests-dont-miss-girls-autism-study-suggests/.  It is worth noting, however, that the study described in the second article looked at girls already diagnosed with autism—which undermines its main point.

[6] Rachel Hiller, Robyn Young. and Nathan Weber, “Sex Differences in Autism Spectrum Disorder Based on DSM-5: Evidence from Clinician and Teacher Reporting,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 42 (2014), 1381–1393.

[7] Rachel Hiller, Robyn Young, and Nathan Weber, “Sex Differences in Pre-Diagnosis Concerns for Children Later Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 20 (2016), 75-84.

[8] Maureen Durkin, et al., “Autism Spectrum Disorder Among US Children (2002–2010): Socioeconomic, Racial, and Ethnic Disparities,” American Journal of Public Health 107:11 (2017), 1818-1826.  See also Pauline Thomas, et al., “The Association of Autism Diagnosis with Socioeconomic Status,” Autism:  The International Journal of Research and Practice 16:2 (March, 2012), 201-13.

[9] C.D. Pulcini, et al., “Poverty and Trends in Three Chronic Disorders,” Pediatrics 139:3 (March, 2017).

[10] Maureen Durkin, et al., “Autism Spectrum Disorder Among US Children (2002–2010): Socioeconomic, Racial, and Ethnic Disparities,” American Journal of Public Health 107:11 (2017), 1818-1826.

[11] Amber Angell, et al., “A Review of Diagnosis and Service Disparities Among Children with Autism from Racial or Ethnic Minority Groups in the United States,” International Review of Research in Developmental Disabilities 55 (2018), 145-80.  See also Jason Travers and Michael Krezmien, “Racial Disparities in Autism Identification in the United States During 2014,” Exceptional Children 84 (2018), 403-19.  Travers and Kremien pay special attention to differences between states in racial disparities; these differences can be quite significant.

[12] Emily Sohn, “Why Autism Seems to Cluster in Some Immigrant Groups,” Spectrum News, 11/29/17.

[13] Christina Kang-Yi, et al., “Influence of Community-Level Cultural Beliefs about Autism on Families’ and Professionals’ Care for Children,” Transcultural Psychiatry 55 (2018), 623-47.  But compare the following three studies, each of which comes to a different conclusion about Mexican immigrant mothers’ attitudes towards autism: Elizabeth Ijalba, “Hispanic Immigrant Mothers of Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: How Do They Understand and Cope With Autism?” American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 25 (2016), 200-13;  Shana Cohen and Jessica Miguel, “ Amor and Social Stigma:  ASD Beliefs Among Immigrant Mexican Parents,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 48 (2018), 1995-2009; Brenda Barrio, et al., “The Impact of Culture on Parental Perceptions about Autism Spectrum Disorders:  Striving for Culturally Competent Practices,” Multicultural Learning and Teaching 14 (2019), 1-9.

[14] Hannah Furfaro, “New Autism Map Points to Diagnostic Deserts in United States,” Spectrum News, 8/28/19:

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