Although minorities are commonly overrepresented in special education in the U.S., a new study from the University of Kansas (KU) has found a stark exception: minorities with autism are widely underrepresented, particularly those from African-American and Hispanic backgrounds.
The new findings reveal that students of all backgrounds are not being identified accurately, resulting in the fact that many children, particularly minorities, are not receiving services vital to their education.
For the study, the researchers analyzed autism identification rates for each state. They compared the percentage of minorities with autism in each state to the percentage of white students with autism. Finally, they compared the rates for each group to the rate of white students with autism in California.
California was used as a comparison for the other states as it is both the largest state by population and widely considered to have outstanding infrastructure for identifying and serving children with autism.
The identification rate in California also was similar to that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As the most populous state, it is also the state least vulnerable to statistical fluctuation in data.
The analyses used data from 2014, which was three years after federal regulations changed from five racial categories to seven. It was also the most current year for data analyzed by the CDC on the prevalence of autism. Although a previous study had shown underrepresentation of minorities in autism, the change warranted a renewed look.
“A considerable change in demographic reporting happened at the federal all the way down to the local level,” said study leader Dr. Jason Travers, associate professor of special education at KU.
“So individual schools had to change their reports and send them to the state, who then sent them to the federal government. So, for several years we’ve had an incomplete picture of autism identification rates.”
For the first time, the change allowed schools to report students, including those with autism, as belonging to “two or more races,” and also established two separate categories for Pacific Islander and Asian students who previously had been reported as one group.
The findings revealed significant underrepresentation of minority students with autism in the majority of states, especially for African-American and Hispanic students. Specifically, 40 states underidentified African-American students with autism when compared to white students in the same state, and 43 states underidentified Hispanic students.
When the rate for each minority was compared to the rate for white students with autism in California, the findings revealed that nearly every state underidentified minority students with autism.
Not a single state had higher percentages of students from those minority groups identified at higher rates than whites, and no state had African-American or Hispanic students listed at the same percentage of white students with autism in California.
Although underrepresentation of minority students with autism was common, there was wide variance from state to state. For example, African-American students were overrepresented in Kansas and Iowa. No states overidentified Hispanic students, and 42 states underidentified them.
“Almost every state in the nation underidentified African-Americans. We’re not sure why that happened, but it did,” Travers said. “Another notable finding about Kansas is Hispanic students continued to be underidentified.”
The wide variance of representation suggests a number of factors may be at play. States are identifying minority students with autism in ways different from white students, but also in ways different from those in California, Travers said.
“Some of that just may be statistics, but when you see almost all states identify children with autism at rates that are about or less than half of the rate for white kids in California, that seems pretty concerning,” Travers said.
“Fundamentally, that means there are kids with autism who are not being identified, and therefore probably aren’t receiving the kinds of services we know can help. But there are also specific groups of minority children who are being identified at rates significantly lower than their white peers.”
Overall, the new findings counter the prevailing notion that minority students are overrepresented in special education because the system is being used as a tool of oppression. Instead, it could mean school officials are not identifying minority students with autism due to longstanding concerns about placing too many minority students in special education, at least in terms of autism, Travers said.
“These trends are prevalent across the country,” Travers said. “I think the focus on overrepresentation of minority students in special education overlooks the more important issue of accurate identification. The field should focus on ensuring accurate identification of minority students with disabilities, including those who need autism-specific services.”
Travers co-authored the report with Dr. Michael Krezmien of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The findings are published in the journal Exceptional Children.
Source: University of Kansas