An early autism diagnosis and subsequent intervention can improve development for kids on the spectrum. Starting such interventions before the age of 3 can better a child’s ability to learn, minimize some symptoms, and help them master more skills. However, despite the fact that such interventions are mandated for those with disabilities, a new study finds that many kids are falling through the cracks.
Researchers at Rutgers University examined the early intervention participation rates of children with autism in New Jersey. They found that less than half of kids on the spectrum had received these services before the age of 3. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, showed that income and racial disparities play a role. The team says this issue is also likely worse in other states.
Josephine Shenouda, lead author and adjunct professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, says, “New Jersey is known as an epicenter of autism, but it also has many resources for autism detection and treatment. If only half of the children with autism in our study area are getting early interventions, chances are the disparities are even more pronounced in other communities and regions with fewer services.”
To understand the service participation rates in New Jersey, the team looked at data from the New Jersey Autism Study, a monitoring system set up by a team at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. They focused on medical and special education records of more than 23,000 children in Essex, Hudson, Ocean, and Union counties. Their analysis identified 4,050 8-year-olds with autism. Of these, only 1,887 had taken part in early intervention services. This, despite the fact that these services are mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The team then examined data on wealth indicators like median household income and found that children living in areas with higher incomes were 80% more likely to take part in these services than those in lower-income neighborhoods. Black and Hispanic children were also less apt to enroll than white children.
The researchers say there could be a few reasons behind these disparities, among them lower rates of screening or a lower likelihood of following recommendations. However, Shenouda says whatever the reason, proactive steps could help balance the numbers.
She says, “With autism prevalence estimates approaching 7% in some areas, we need universal autism screening between 18 and 36 months and enhanced support for the early intervention system. These actions will reduce economic and race-based disparities in autism identification and care.”
The team says it’s also important to understand the cultural and socioeconomic barriers to early diagnosis and these essential services, so that outreach and information distribution can combat them.
Among the early intervention services for kids on the spectrum are family training, speech therapy, hearing impairment services, physical therapy, and nutrition services.