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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Researchers Work To Dispel Myths By Studying How Ethnicity & Gender Affect How Autism Is Diagnosed

A woman poses for a portrait in front of a sign that reads "Social Cognition and Interaction in Autism Lab".
Keren Carrión
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KERA News
Desi Jones is a third-year PhD student in the psychological sciences program at UT Dallas. She said that children of color can often go undiagnosed for autism because they aren't represented in a lot of autism research. "If they don't really fit the mold of what someone thinks autism should be, then maybe they aren't screened as closely," she said.

Autism includes an array of conditions and abilities — but the study of autism has lacked inclusivity. Early researchers Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger studied white boys. Today, though, researchers are working to better understand how autism affects people of all ethnicities and genders — and to push back against some common misconceptions.

Misconception 1: Autism only impacts boys

According to the Center for Disease Control, boys are 4.3 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism.

Girls are diagnosed later, according to Dr. Kevin Pelphrey, a child psychologist who studies autism in girls. His research found that autism can manifest in different brain systems in girls than in boys. Autistic girls, he said, tend to have dysfunction in the parts of the brain that handle motor skills, executive function and emotional regulation.

"In boys, it's much more what we kind of thought autism always was, which was dysfunction in brain systems involved in social communication and social development," Pelphrey said.

Gender affecting the cause of autism is unusual. Pelphrey said in most medical conditions, the cause is the same, but the symptoms are different.

There isn't a lot of research on autistic girls. Pelphrey said the lack of research means girls are misdiagnosed and miss out on early intervention.

Misconception 2: Autism is less prevalent in people of color

People of color are also diagnosed later and less often. According to the CDC, white children are about 30% more likely to be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder than Black children and around 50% more likely to be diagnosed than Latino children.

A 2014 study found there is no racial or ethnic difference in when parents of autistic children noticed symptoms of autism in their children, but white children are still more likely to be diagnosed.

This bias extends to autism research. Desiree Jones is a third-year PhD candidate at UT Dallas, who says autism research often focuses on the needs of white boys. That can lead autistic children of color to not getting diagnosed.

"If they don't really fit the mold of what someone thinks autism should be, then maybe they aren't screened as closely," Jones said. "They kind of fly under the radar."

Misconception 3: Autism is the same for everyone

Autism is a spectrum – each autistic person's experience is unique.

And that means autistic people can have different support needs. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association removed Asperger's Syndrome from the diagnostic manual and changed the diagnosis to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Kayley Whalen with the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network said Asperger's was a label that referred to an autistic person who was considered to not have major barriers to functioning in society.

Some autistic people are nonverbal and need an augmentative and alternative communication device. But being nonverbal doesn't mean they're less capable of communicating. Brandi Thompson of Plano said her son, who is nonverbal, was grossly underestimated at school.

"In his own words, he was bored and angry, and they treated him like a baby," Thompson said.

A mother hugs her son from behind and he clasps her hands. The hands are the focal point and you can't see the mom's or boy's faces.
Keren Carrión
Brandi Thompson holds her son's hands. Her son is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum and often misunderstood.

Thompson realized she herself was autistic when her son was diagnosed.

She said her mother worried she was autistic when she was a baby, but decided she was too smart to be autistic.

"People don't get help unless they're disruptive," she said.