By Ken Liebeskind
When Yanira Rodriguez began to realize her son might be autistic, he had yet to celebrate his second birthday. Rodriguez, who is from New Britain, Connecticut, knows the struggle all parents of autistic children face through raising her son Ethan, who is now six years old.
“Between 15 and 18 months he did things other children don’t do, like rocking and banging his head on the floor,” she said.
Now more than ever, Latinos can relate to her experience, as higher numbers of Latino children are being diagnosed with autism each year, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). According to data from the CDC, autism spectrum disorders are up 78 percent from 2007, and have increased 110 percent in Latino children. One in every 88 children is currently identified as autistic.
“The increase in Latino children is not epidemic but is based on several factors, one of them cultural,” said Rowland Barrett, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism & Developmental Disabilities at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island. “The kids were always there, but now autism has become better known in the Latino community. They’re being brought up to speed.”
He credits that to the efforts of advocacy groups and social service providers who are encouraging Latino parents to have their children tested, especially those with milder forms of autism, like Asperger’s syndrome.
“In speaking with my colleagues, the thinking is that Latino parents have not been accessing services for their children when the autism is milder,” Barrett said. “They may have thought their child was retarded, not autistic.”
Overall, there has been an increase in autism rates in the general population, he said.
“Autism has become a ‘hot topic’ in recent years, and parents are coming out of the woodwork to have their children tested,” Barrett said.
Also, the definition of autism has been broadened to include the milder forms, which has led to an increase in rates.
When it comes to Latino children, the large increase in rates seems dramatic because they previously had lower rates of autism compared to the general population, Barrett noted.
“For the children of Latino parents born in the United States, autism rates are actually similar to that of the general population,” Barrett said. “But for those whose parents were born in their native country, the rates are much lower.”
The rates for Latino children with the most severe forms of autism are no different from the general population, he said.
“Latinos have not sought services unless there was a serious problem,” Barrett said.
Unlike what some Latino parents of autistic children face, Rodriquez was fortunate in being referred to the proper professionals for her son and gaining support from doctors, schools and other programs.
When Rodriguez brought her son to his doctor, her family was referred to a program that provides free evaluations for children that is run by the Connecticut Department of Development Services.
“They came to the house until he was 2-1/2 and did an educational diagnosis and speech therapy,” she said. “I saw some improvements but I wanted a medical diagnosis as well as an educational diagnosis.”
Doctors at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford diagnosed Ethan with autism and began suggesting therapy treatments. After the first treatment facility told her they could no longer serve him for his behavioral issues, she found the Innovative Autism Network, where Ethan now goes three times a week for speech and occupational therapy.
Thanks to his early diagnosis and therapy sessions, Ethan now attends a mainstream school in New Britain for kindergarten.
For more information, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website www.healthychildren.org/English or www.healthychildren.org/Spanish.
Additional reporting and editing contributed to this story by Barbara Thomas.
(Photo by hepingting via Flickr)