For autistic children 3 to 6 — a critical period for treating the disorder — the state Department of Developmental Services last year spent an average of $11,723 per child on whites, compared with $11,063 on Asians, $7,634 on Latinos and $6,593 on blacks.
Data from public schools, though limited, shows that whites are more likely to receive basic services such as occupational therapy to help with coordination and motor skills.
The divide is even starker when it comes to the most coveted service — a behavioral aide from a private company to accompany a child throughout each school day, at a cost that often reaches $60,000 a year.
In the state's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, white elementary school students on the city's affluent Westside have such aides at more than 10 times the rate of Latinos on the Eastside.
It might be tempting to blame such disparities on prejudice, but the explanation is more complicated.
“Part of what you're seeing here is the more educated and sophisticated you are, the louder you scream and the more you ask for,” said Soryl Markowitz, an autism specialist at the Westside Regional Center, which arranges state-funded services in West Los Angeles for people with developmental disabilities.
In California last year, autism accounted for one tenth of special education enrollment but one third of the disputes between schools and parents on record with the state.
Carmen Carley, a professional advocate for families seeking public services, said parents who present themselves as formidable opponents fare best.
“Wear a fake diamond ring,” she tells mothers who don't have a real one. “Make them think you're ready to fight. Don't show them you're weak. Don't show them you're tired.”
Though all regional centers are supposed to follow the same criteria, average spending per child varies widely from place to place and race to race, according to data obtained by The Times under the California Public Records Act.
Last year, the system served 16,367 autistic children between the critical ages of 3 and 6, spending an average of $9,751 per case statewide. But spending ranged from an average of $1,991 per child at the regional center in South Los Angeles to $18,356 at the one in Orange County.
At 14 of the 21 centers, average spending on white children exceeded that for both blacks and Latinos.
At the Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center, which serves a swath of Los Angeles County stretching from Hollywood to Pasadena, spending on white youngsters with autism averaged $12,794 per child last year — compared with $9,449 for Asians, $5,094 for blacks and $4,652 for Latinos.
Diane Anand, the executive director, said many minority children enrolled in the system receive few or no services because their parents can't participate as required in orientations or therapy sessions.
Anand faulted state officials for failing to research the causes of the disparities.
“I don't know what you do about some of this,” she said. “This is an issue that has bedeviled our service system for years and years.”