Children with autism spectrum disorder often have difficulty with social, emotional and communication skills, yet they vary greatly in the way they learn, think and solve problems.

That wide range is reflected in a popular saying: “If you’ve met one kid with autism, you’ve met ONE kid with autism.”

But the best research into how to help children with autism seldom considers the race, ethnicity or nationality of the study participants.

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And when race is reported, the majority of the participants are white, middle-class kids with educated, skilled and resourceful parents, according to a new study.

That raises questions about whether what works for those kids also will work for children of different races, ethnic cultures, languages and nationalities.

“We need to clarify who benefits from different interventions and why,” said lead author Elizabeth West, a special education researcher at the University of Washington.

West and her co-authors reviewed 408 studies previously vetted by the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, a federally-funded research project to promote the use of evidence-based practices.

They found that only 18 percent of the studies reported the race, ethnicity and nationality of participants and, in those studies, 63.5 percent of the children were white.

Almost 21 percent were multiracial with the remainder divided among African American, Asian, Hispanic/Latino and Middle Eastern children. Only one Native American student was included.

West and her colleagues aren’t the first to raise concerns about the lack of diversity among the kids in the studies.

“It’s been a low-level concern, but it’s my sense that this is the first time it’s actually been quantified and the data has been examined,” West said.

Their study, published in The Journal of Special Education, urges researchers to recruit more diverse kids for their studies – an effort that could be encouraged with grants.

“We pay attention to the autism without considering the context within which it occurs,” West said.

© 2016 The Seattle Times
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