Autism includes an array of conditions and abilities — but the study of autism has lacked inclusivity. Early researchers Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger studied white boys. Today, though, researchers are working to better understand how autism affects people of all ethnicities and genders — and to push back against some common misconceptions.
Misconception 1: Autism only impacts boys
According to the Center for Disease Control, boys are 4.3 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism.
Girls are diagnosed later, according to Dr. Kevin Pelphrey, a child psychologist who studies autism in girls. His research found that autism can manifest in different brain systems in girls than in boys. Autistic girls, he said, tend to have dysfunction in the parts of the brain that handle motor skills, executive function and emotional regulation.
“In boys, it’s much more what we kind of thought autism always was, which was dysfunction in brain systems involved in social communication and social development,” Pelphrey said.
Gender affecting the cause of autism is unusual. Pelphrey said in most medical conditions, the cause is the same, but the symptoms are different.
There isn’t a lot of research on autistic girls. Pelphrey said the lack of research means girls are misdiagnosed and miss out on early intervention.
Misconception 2: Autism is less prevalent in people of color
People of color are also diagnosed later and less often. According to the CDC, white children are about 30% more likely to be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder than Black children and around 50% more likely to be diagnosed than Latino children.
A 2014 study found there is no racial or ethnic difference in when parents of autistic children noticed symptoms of autism in their children, but white children are still more likely to be diagnosed.
This bias extends to autism research. Desiree Jones is a third-year PhD candidate at UT Dallas, who says autism research often focuses on the needs of white boys. That can lead autistic children of color to not getting diagnosed.
“If they don’t really fit the mold of what someone thinks autism should be, then maybe they aren’t screened as closely,” Jones said. “They kind of fly under the radar.”