Does This Student Have a Diagnosis of Autism? What Matters May Surprise You

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It is well established that autistic children have unique ways of learning which often require adaptations to the classroom and teaching methods. New research suggests that in North Carolina, race, geography, and community resources influence whether a child is classified as having a diagnosis of autism versus developmental delay, putting children on different educational trajectories that could have lifelong effects.

Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development investigators Drs. Lauren Franz, Jill Howard, and Gary Maslow, along with Duke Global Health Institute’s Dr. Eunsoo Timothy Kim and Dr. Danai Kasambira Fannin of NC Central University, published research showing that NC students’ autism or developmental delay classification is influenced by the state’s urban-rural resource divide, the student’s race and/or ethnicity, and the availability of local resources.

“Black children living in rural, lower-resource communities were more often diagnosed with intellectual or developmental disability, while urban, white children more often received an autism diagnosis,” said Fannin. “These differences may point to disparities that could have significant policy and educational implications."

“Timing matters. Misclassification means missed opportunities,” said Franz. “We know that behavioral interventions and appropriate educational supports can improve social communication and language skills for autistic kids. Starting services and supports when a child is younger can make a dramatic difference, for life.”

Kim ET, Franz L, Fannin DK, Howard J, Maslow G. Educational classifications of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability among school-aged children in North Carolina: Associations with race, rurality, and resource availability. Autism Res. 2021 May;14(5):1046-1060.

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