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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Need for Research Beyond the West

Almost everything we know about autism comes from a handful of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) countries in the so-called “global north,” yet most autistic people live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) around the globe that are quite different from these predominantly English-speaking nations. In a review conducted in 2017, my colleagues and I discovered that less than 1 percent of all autism research to date was performed in Africa, a continent that is predicted by UNICEF to be the home of more than 40 percent of the world’s children by 2050. At the service level, the majority of people in LMICs receive no diagnoses or supports, and in the few—typically urban—areas that can offer services, families often have to pay out of their own pocket. Finding strategies to meet the needs of autistic people and their families in LMICs is therefore fast approaching critical levels.

Scientists have made some progress toward diversifying autism research in high-income countries, by setting up initiatives to increase the diversity, equity and inclusion of the researchers, organizations and communities involved. My colleagues and I acknowledge those efforts. But unless autism research becomes diverse and global at the same time, we will retain the “knowledge gap” between the high-income/English-speaking nations and the rest of the world.

The International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) annual meeting begins tomorrow in Melbourne, Australia. Having this meeting in Australia, rather than in the U.S. or Europe as has previously been the case, is a values-based action intended to make it easier for researchers, clinicians and advocates from the Western Pacific Region to participate. The program deliberately includes panels and special-interest groups on the perspectives and needs of Indigenous, minority and other marginalized groups across the Western Pacific Region. Discussions are also slated to include the research priorities of diverse communities across the globe.