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Study: More Hispanic children with autism remain undiagnosed

Maribel Hernandez is a mother of two young sons with autism, Max, 12, and Chris, 10, and she agrees with the importance of early intervention.

“Sometimes, as parents, we want to justify the behavior of our children, but we have to admit the behavior is not right,” she says. “For example, when I noticed my son stopped talking, I justified it saying that he was just looking for attention.”

UC Davis MIND Institute released this week the largest study to date comparing the development of Hispanic and non-Hispanic children and found a higher percentage of Hispanic children often have undiagnosed developmental delays, or autism.  The study included 1,061 children living in California who were between 24 and 60 months of age. The results showed that 6.3 percent of Hispanic children enrolled in the study met criteria for developmental delay and autism, compared with only 2.4 percent of non-Hispanic participants.

This study raises concerns that many Hispanic children with developmental delays may not be getting the services they need. Experts recommend increased public health efforts to improve awareness, especially among Hispanics, about the indicators of developmental delay and autism.

“Autism and developmental delay tend to go undiagnosed when parents are not aware of the signs to look for, and the conditions are often misdiagnosed when parents don’t have access to adequate developmental surveillance and screening,” said Dr. Virginia Chaidez, the lead author and a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences.

Hernandez agrees and hopes more Latinos learn to tell the difference, and ask experts.

“Many Latinos tend to say, ‘Don’t worry,’” says Hernandez. “My mother would say that I didn’t talk till I was 5 years old, instead of urging me to look for a professional.”

She says her sons were diagnosed with autism at 2 years and 8 months, and at 18 months, by a child specialist who came to their home, and then again by a neurologist. She feels the fact that the autism was diagnosed so young benefits all of them.

“As a mother, you have more time to educate yourself, and you can prepare and help your child, because you will be able to understand him,” says Hernandez who as a mother has to keep trying to find what works. “If this year something didn’t work, try again next year, because children change.”

Dr. Chaidez says what differentiates autism from other developmental delays is deficits in social interactions and communication behaviors.

“There is a combination of genetic and environmental causes for autism – not a single cause,” says Dr. Chaidez. “The CHARGE study [an ongoing study started in 2003] that I worked with, have published findings, including women who take pre-natal vitamins seem to have lower risk of having a baby with autism…People that live close to a freeway, or an area with a lot of air pollution, also have a bigger risk.”

Although both of the Hernandez boys have autism, Dr. Chaidez says it’s normal for them to exhibit different symptoms, because everyone is unique.

“When Max was evaluated, they noticed he always had something in his hand,” says Hernandez. “With Chris, it was totally different. He never talked until he was 5-years-old…and at around 15-16 months, he started to cry all day, and then he started to bite me and his hands.”

She says when she received the boy’s diagnosis, she started therapy for them from Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm.

“Max graduated at 4-years-old, because he reached all of his goals,” says Hernandez about the program that helped him brush his hair and teeth, and other skills that kids often learn on their own. “Chris had to receive therapy for six years, because although Max always had friends, Chris had trouble making friends.”

She says now they attend a regular school and are aided by an assistant. Hernandez says she is very grateful to programs like Birth and Beyond and Applied Behavior Analysis, because she says when she first moved to Sacramento from San Jose, she didn’t know anybody. Now most of her friends are other mothers who have children with autism.

“Learning how to motivate them is the hardest thing,” says Hernandez who has not finished learning about autism, but still sounds extremely patient and hopeful. She even learned English to help her boys not have to learn two languages. “Sometimes nothing interests them, but you just have to find the answers.”

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