Emily Sohn at Spectrum via Scientific American:
[Cultural] complexities, experts say, make it difficult to interpret the evidence that certain immigrant communities have an unusually high or low prevalence of autism. As some researchers dig into possible explanations, from stress to environmental factors, others say the true issue may be societal: a mix of diagnostic challenges, communication barriers and culture clashes that lead clinicians to misdiagnose or miss children on the spectrum in these communities.
Some teams are trying to develop or assess screening tools tailored for certain ethnic groups in the U.S. and elsewhere—for example, a picture-based tool for use in Sri Lanka—and these efforts may lead to more accurate numbers among different populations. If the figures reveal true differences in prevalence among these communities, they might offer clues about the potential causes of autism. The vast majority of research on autism today, after all, is limited to mostly white and middle-class families. At the very least, getting a better handle on prevalence may help identify populations with the greatest needs for culturally adapted services.
“What’s important is that kids who have autism get identified early and access high-quality treatment,” says Katharine Zuckerman, a pediatrician at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. “I think we do a pretty poor job of that in this country, especially if you look at the most evidence-based treatments for autism—only a small fraction gets that. And immigration influences the ability to access those things.”
Fixing flawed prevalence rates in immigrant communities calls for screening tools that have been adapted specifically for these families. The translations available so far often miss the cultural mark, however. One meta-analysis of 21 studies assessed the translation of nine widely used screening tools for autism, including the Autism Spectrum Screening Questionnaire, into eight languages, including Arabic. The results exposed a web of complications and altered meanings. Some translations changed questions and, in the process, altered the cutoff scores for diagnosis. For example, a Japanese version of the popular Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) had to take into account reluctance among parents in Japan to answer “yes” to yes-or-no questions, and a tendency to interpret their child’s lack of interest in other children as mere shyness. In some countries, including Mexico, it is rude to make eye contact or point with your index finger, and questions about both behaviors often show up on screening tools. Parents from various cultures also have different expectations about how their children should behave, research shows. Those differences include when parents think children should reach developmental milestones and how important they think it is to talk to their children.