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Ethnic Diversity Needed in Autism Research

Ethnic Diversity Needed in Autism Research

Although autism affects children from all walks of life, the research that guides interventions and care plans rarely reports racial and ethnic status of its participants.

University of Kansas researchers have found that this presents a problem because response to an intervention is not guaranteed, and it’s not always clear why one child will respond positively to certain methods while another will not.

For example, educational professionals use the scientifically based interventions to help those affected develop reading and other life skills. In some cases, a particular intervention may be more or less effective for particular racial or ethnic group.

“I think teachers and researchers can tend to categorize these methods with the label evidence-based practices and assume they will be effective when that’s not always the case,” said Jason Travers, Ph.D., assistant professor of special education at the University of Kansas and a co-author of the study.

“In our field we’ve been working to identify practices that are effective for students with autism. By clarifying how racial and ethnic diversity of participants impacts intervention effects, we can increase the probability of educational benefit.”

In the study, Travers and co-authors examined 408 peer-reviewed, published studies of evidence-based practices for autism intervention. Only 73 of them, or 17.9 percent, reported the race, ethnicity or nationality of participants. And of those, white children comprised a large majority.

Of the nearly 2,500 participants in the studies, only 770 reported race, and 489 or 63.5 percent were white. Multiracial participants comprised 20.6 percent; black and Asian participants represented 6.8 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively; Hispanic/Latino comprised 2.5 percent; Middle Eastern participants made up 1.3 percent, and only one Native American participant was reported.

The study was co-authored by Elizabeth West, Talya Kemper, Lisa Liberty, Debra Cote, Meaghan McCollow and L. Lynn Stansberry Brusnahan and was published in the Journal of Special Education.

The new study address an ongoing area of debate in the field of special education and autism research: Is race is an important factor to consider in whether a young person will respond to an evidence-based practice?

The authors argue race is indeed an important consideration.

“We looked into race because other researchers suggested it may be underreported in the intervention resistance literature. Race is also a proxy to other factors we need to know about, such as poverty, nutrition, socioeconomic status, exposure to toxins, parents’ primary language, immigrant status, whether parents were likely to get prenatal care and many others that can be deleterious to educational outcomes,” Travers said.

Study authors explain that one concern with the studies not considering race is that most of them used single-case experimental designs which only require one or a few participants. Nevertheless, they confirm that autism can be a difficult topic around which to build multi-participant studies.

It can also be difficult to recruit and retain participants who lack resources often necessary to take part in such studies. For that reason, the authors call for grants from federal and research funding agencies specifically for studies that are designed to recruit a diverse body of participants.

“We’ve relied heavily on single-case experimental design in autism research,” Travers said.

“Participant race isn’t always something that influences whether an intervention is effective in a single-case experiment. But it’s worth reporting because race may be associated with other factors that may influence responding.

“The low reporting overall and the large percentage of white participants may be a problem of convenience or resources. But this presents a risk of assuming an intervention will be as effective for diverse learners with autism.”

The researchers argue that teachers of students with autism are by and large passionate, driven professionals who want to do the best for their students but might not be able to do so if they are not given the best possible tools.

They also believe it is important to consider that an evidence-based practice that is effective for some children may not be for others. By clarifying who benefits from different interventions and why, we might better serve racially and ethnically diverse students with autism, Travers added.

Source: University of Kansas

Ethnic Diversity Needed in Autism Research

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Ethnic Diversity Needed in Autism Research. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.