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Understanding autism: African American children with autism are more likely to be misdiagnosed

April 18, 2010

Tips for parents and caregivers on identifying early warning signs

by Kris Perry, Executive Director, First 5 California

Abdulahi, 5, is autistic. He and his mother, Idil Abdull, are from Somalia. Autism is occurring frequently in the Somalian-American community. – Photo: Allen Brisson-Smith, New York Times
Currently, one in 110 children in the United States has autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism is a developmental disability that occurs when the brain has trouble functioning properly. It affects a child’s ability to speak, learn and communicate with others.

A study by Dr. David Mandell in October 2005 reported that, on average, the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was delayed by almost two years among African American children – to 7.5 years old – as compared to their Caucasian counterparts, whose autism is diagnosed at an average 5.5 years old. At this time, there is no cure for autism, but kids who are screened and diagnosed at a young age and visit a doctor regularly for treatment show significant improvement in learning and communication skills.

In recognition of April being Autism Awareness Month, First 5 California wants parents and caregivers to be aware of the following early signs of autism to help families identify a need for early intervention and treatment.

Early warning signs

Not all children develop at the same rate, but some may need further evaluation and special services to help them grow up healthy. Autism, in particular, can be difficult to diagnose because it affects each child differently. A group study by the National Alliance of Autism Research revealed that each ethnic group has unique genes that can interact with autism-associated genes to slightly change the course of the disease.

For example, certain symptoms associated with autism, such as delayed language development and problems handling daily life tasks, are more severe in African American individuals with autism than Caucasians. Pay attention to certain signs in your child’s behavior. See a health care provider for further screenings if you notice your child exhibits any of these indicators:

• Does not coo or smile by 6 months old

• Has trouble sitting, standing up or reaching for objects by 1 year old

• Does not say simple words like “mama” or “dada” by 1 year old

• Does not turn his or her head to follow sounds or voices

• Does not react to loud noises

• Repeats certain behaviors, including some that are harmful like banging his or her head

• Makes little or no eye contact and wants to be alone

• Does not play games like peek-a-boo or “pretend” (e.g., pretending to feed a doll)

• Any loss of speech or social skills

Early intervention and treatment

By getting help at an early age when the brain is still developing – from birth to age 3 – parents can help children reduce the effects of autism by the time they start kindergarten. Some of the most common treatment options include speech therapy, diet and therapies focused on improving relationships.

For more information, visit First 5 California, also known as the California Children and Families Commission, was established after voters passed Proposition 10 in November 1998, adding a 50-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund education, health, child care and other programs for expectant parents and children up to age 5. For more information, please visit

2 thoughts on “Understanding autism: African American children with autism are more likely to be misdiagnosed

  1. Melinda McCullough

    "Welcome to my World" this is a story of a mother given a special gift at birth of a son with Autism. Instead of putting him in a mental Hospital for the rest of his Life. I obeyed God and raised my son on my own for many years with no family and very little help from my community. With my son in and out of the hospital for seizures,mental attacks, medical issues. Asthma, a brain injury and many more medical issues, it has been an ongoing struggle in the State of Kentucky to get any help from Government as well as the school system. With Many years of raising my son at home instead of a mental hospital. Many gifts were discovered. He is very gifted with drawing, singing, playing the piano and drums. He made all state in Junior High, received a scholarship for vocal lessons in 2010. Still trying to learn how to socialize has been a challenge but with prayer he is now very outgoing, has made many friends and is well liked. Thank you God for bringing us this far. I can tell you it is challenging without a father in the house" But God. " I can tell you that he is a young man that loves the Lord and worships him sincerely. I look at that and I thank God for the 14 years he has brought us through. I never gave up on him. God never gave us up. As the page turns in our life and as he now enters into a world of a young man that is going to High School. I pray that these next years will be a great one for him. My prayer is to move as God has instructed me to seek out Columbus Ohio. Pray for us as we move into a whole new life.

  2. asim

    Autism in America today is serially misunderstood and misdiagnosed. … A 2010 study found that African-American children were 2.6 times less likely to … are more likely to diagnose children that fit the popular archetype. … Misdiagnosis is so prevalent partly because we still don't really understand autism.


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