This is a controversial topic, and there have been only a few studies looking at autism in children of color. Is autism, a brain-based condition, different in African Americans? Or are the apparent differences a result of the children and families being exposed to different cultural, economic and social situations? No one really knows, but it could very well be a mixture of the two.
The limited research that is out there points to some key differences in what autism looks like in African-American children. One of the main findings is that "regressive" autism (characterized by the loss of social and language skills after having already developed them) is twice as common in African-American children than it is in their white peers.
One large study suggests that African-American children with autism are also likely to demonstrate challenging and aggressive behaviors.
Another study demonstrates that minority children with autism seem to have more severe problems with language and communication than their white peers. The authors wondered whether the more subtle signs of autism are being missed by parents.
The cause of these findings remains unknown and, like autism itself, may be attributable to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The difficulty is that there has been little research on autism in African-American children, so findings like the ones I have mentioned are not often followed up on or investigated further.
We applaud scientists like Dr. Daniel Geschwind, a professor of psychiatry, neurology and genetics at UCLA, who has undertaken a five-year genetic study on African Americans and autism. Dr. Geschwind is currently recruiting for this study, and his research will fill a much-needed void in the scientific literature and hopefully provide answers to the complex questions regarding some of the findings that other evaluators have explored but have yet to provide definitive data or conclusions.