Here we are at the close of Autism Awareness April, and as usual, there remains one area I hardly ever see awareness being brought to. The fact that there exists a huge disparity in the diagnosis and therefore treatment of Autism in minority children, and especially in Black and Brown boys. And as the mother of a little Black boy with Autism, one of the most important things I can do this month is speak to the serious of that issue.
Autism symptoms present fairly early on, and if you know what you're looking for the signs are obvious. Yet, whether from overt racism or implicit bias, when Black and Brown children present with the exact same symptoms their White counterparts do, the professionals in their lives are much more likely to marginalize these children and label them, as opposed to seeking a cause and getting them help. If there's a speech delay, which is a huge red flag, Tad may be referred over to a therapist, whereas Carlos' mom might be told that "your kids often just talk later." If there are behavioral issues, Jax is more likely to receive a referral to a specialist, while DaShawn is kicked out of daycare after daycare and labeled an unreformable bad kid before he even sets foot in an actual school. Sisters: If you have concerns, do not be put off by an "expert" telling you that your child is okay, he'll grow out of it, or that's just how some kids are. To be sure, some kids ARE like that. And some kids have a neurological disorder called Autism, where the earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome. Statistics are very clear on this: Black kids are diagnosed on average 1-2 years later than their White counterparts, and since early intervention is key, this delay leads to greater deficits down the road. A missed or a late diagnosis can have repercussions that will reverberate throughout a child's entire life, especially when you consider that since the average age of diagnosis across all races is 4, that puts the average age of diagnosis in Black children at 5 or 6, when the child might already be in Kindergarten or 1st grade. That is simply unacceptable.
So what can our community do if our trusted professionals aren't on top of this? BE AWARE. Know the early indications, and be proactive on your child's behalf. Autism lays on a spectrum, and symptoms and/or severity differ based on the individual. Don't let yourself be convinced by family and friends that your child's symptoms don't bear looking into because they "aren't that bad" and don't fit a stereotypical picture of Autism that may not even be accurate. Often, we as a people can become preoccupied with stigma, and would rather keep hoping and wishing that our child's symptoms are something they'll grow out of, or that they'll just poof and one day disappear, leaving us with a neurotypical child. As with any other health issue, if you think your child is exhibiting symptoms of Autism, get it looked into. If your child is referred over for a multidisciplinary evaluation and your kid ends up not having Autism, awesome! You looked into it and can put your mind at ease. If the results of the evaluation show that your child is on the Spectrum, awesome! Now you have a diagnosis and can get a game plan together knowing that you have helped your child immeasurably by getting the earliest diagnosis you could.
So while other parents and organizations have taken this month to focus on acceptance, or awareness on a larger scale--as the mother of a little Black boy with Autism, I urge you to simply Be Aware. It is awareness in our own communities which will push these statistics in the right direction, and get our kids the help they need that much earlier.