Hispanic children often have undiagnosed developmental delays, according to new research that also found that large numbers of all children who were first thought to have developmental delays actually had autism.
“Our study raises concerns about access to accurate, culturally relevant information regarding developmental milestones and the importance of early detection and treatment,” said Virginia Chaidez, Ph.D., the lead author and a postdoctoral researcher in the University of California Davis when the study was conducted.
“Autism and developmental delay tend to go undiagnosed when parents are not aware of the signs to look for, and the conditions are often misdiagnosed when parents don’t have access to adequate developmental surveillance and screening.”
The researchers used data from the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study, a population-based study of factors that increase the risks for autism or developmental delay.
The study included 1,061 children living in California who were between 24 and 60 months of age. They were divided into three groups: Children with autism, children with developmental delay but not autism, and children with typical development.
The evaluations of Hispanic children were conducted by bilingual clinicians in Spanish or English, depending on the primary language used at home.
The results for children with at least one Hispanic parent of any race were then compared to the results for children of non-Hispanic white parents.
The comparison revealed more similarities than differences in terms of autism profiles, including diagnostic scores, language function, whether or not children lost acquired skills, and overall intellectual, social and physical functioning, according to the researchers.
However, the researchers did find that 6.3 percent of Hispanic children enrolled in the study who were selected randomly out of the general population met criteria for developmental delay, compared with only 2.4 percent of non-Hispanic participants, which is the expected percentage.
This raised concerns that many Hispanic children with developmental delays may not be getting the services they need, the researchers note.
The study also revealed that for all children, there was a high percentage — about 19 percent overall — with developmental delays who actually met the criteria for autism, raising concerns about adequate access to accurate developmental assessment.
When the analysis was restricted to bilingual children, a link was also found between secondary language exposure (when a child was spoken to 25 to 50 percent of the time in a language other than English) and lower scores on standardized tests of receptive and expressive language. This resulted in lower overall cognitive scores for this group.
“Our results emphasize the importance of considering cultural and other family factors such as multiple language exposure that can affect development when interpreting clinical tests, even when they are conducted in the child’s preferred language,” said Robin Hansen, Ph.D., study co-author.
“That so many children are slipping through the cracks is disheartening,” she continued. “The differences between developmental disabilities can be subtle but important and involve distinct treatment pathways. We need to make sure that all children are getting routine developmental screening, early diagnosis and intervention so they can achieve their fullest potential.”
The study is published in the journal Autism.