Today marks the beginning of National Health Education Week! It occurs each year on the third week of October and is sponsored by the Society for Public Health Education. The goal of this event is to highlight the importance of health education and to recognize the work that health educators do on a daily basis to protect the nation’s health. Each day has a designated theme and today’s focus is on health disparities, which describes preventable differences in health status for certain groups of people. Did you know that there are health disparities in receiving an autism diagnosis?
I’m a public health educator and autism is one of the areas that I have been focusing on since 2011. In keeping with the theme of National Health Education Week, this post will discuss autism, the importance of early intervention and some of the causes for health disparities in autism diagnosis. It will also share information about a faith based initiative that seeks to make a difference in this area.
What is autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain, causing issues with communication, social interactions and behavior. Autism currently affects 1 in every 68 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Signs of autism vary from person to person, but some of the most common signs include:
- poor eye contact
- delayed speech and language skills
- resistance to change
- unusual and repetitive behaviors
Having an autism diagnosis can greatly impact a person’s a life. However, studies have found that early intervention can improve lifetime outcomes for a child with autism.
What is early intervention?
Early intervention is therapy services provided for a child from birth to 3 years of age. An example can include speech therapy to help a child with delayed speech and language skills. Another example is occupational therapy to help improve a child’s gross and fine motor skills. Early intervention can be provided by the state or by a private therapy provider. After a child turns 3 years old, services are available through the local school system. Unfortunately, every child with autism doesn’t receive early intervention. An autism diagnosis can be made for a child as young as 18-24 months. However, most children are not diagnosed with autism until after 4 years of age.
Are there health disparities in autism diagnosis?
Black and Hispanic children are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis at a later age than White children. Studies have found a combination of reasons as to why this may be, such as:
- poor access to healthcare
- low socioeconomic status
- stigmas related to autism
- language barriers
- concerns about immigration status
Receiving a late diagnosis hinders a child’s ability to receive early intervention. It reduces their opportunity to improve their developmental delays before starting elementary school, which places them at a disadvantage. This is why early intervention is so important!
I am the mother of two African-American sons with autism. When my oldest son was diagnosed, I realized that there was a gap in knowledge about autism, not only in the African-American community, but in the faith community as well. My personal experiences with these two communities led me to start the Autism Awareness Month Faith Based Initiative in 2016.
What is the Autism Awareness Month Faith Based Initiative?
The Autism Awareness Month Faith Based Initiative promotes autism awareness and acceptance in faith based communities each year in April. Participants receive a toolkit with information about autism and tips on how they can educate their congregation. We also provide support for churches interested in becoming more autism friendly. To date, we have had 23 churches participate, with over 5500 people learning about autism! Most of the churches are predominantly African-American, with many commenting that they didn’t know much about autism until the initiative began at their church.
There are plans to expand this initiative by continuing to partner with faith based communities to:
- create more autism awareness
- promote early intervention
- encourage screening for autism
- eliminate stigmas about autism
- promote autism acceptance and inclusion
If your faith community is interested in learning more about autism, please join our initiative! Together, we can reduce health disparities in autism diagnosis, one faith community at a time!
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). (2015, February 26). Retrieved October 16, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html
Community Report on Autism, 2016. Retrieved on October 15, 2017 from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/documents/comm-report-autism-full-report.pdf