About one in 88 children in the United States today have some form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is the fastest growing developmental disability among U.S. children. And the largest increases in new diagnoses are happening in America’s minority communities.

In the 1990s, white children were 90 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than any other race. However, as more information on the disorder is becoming available—and as stigma and misinformation diminish—there is a narrowing racial gap in ASD diagnosis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1 in 170 Latino children in America have autism, just below the rate among white kids (1 in 100). According to a new study published in the Journal of Special Education, the risk for discovering autism in Latinos has almost doubled in less than five years.

A Narrowing Gap?

Autism can be characterized by social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and the tendency to engage in repetitive, compulsive behaviors early on in a child’s development.

Most experts associate autistic disorders with an inability to interpret what others are thinking and feeling. A child on the spectrum may have difficulties with subtle social cues. It is also common for children with autism to have difficulty regulating their emotions, and as a result these children often seem “immature” for their age. Aggressive and disruptive behaviors are also common. However, the vast range of ASDs can make it difficult for parents to differentiate between autism and other behavior problems. Nor do many parents know what to do about their suspicions.

Studies show that both adults and children can significantly lessen autistic symptoms with professional interventions and therapies. Most doctors also agree that the earlier the diagnosis, the better. However, the latest autism research points out racial discrepancies in treating the disorder.

According to studies by the Commonwealth Autism Service, Latino children are diagnosed for autism at an average age of 8.8 years. This is the oldest diagnosis age for any race in America (it’s 6.3 years and 7.9 years for white and black children, respectively). Doctors and parents might be better at diagnosing autism, but it seems that health care barriers and misinformation are still hindering Latinos in taking the next step.

According to the CDC, Latinos are less likely to seek preventative care or mental health services than other demographic groups. Many also say that hospitals often don’t have updated information in Spanish.

During an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jose Luis Hernandez, a father, described his initial response to his son’s diagnosis:

“For Latinos who don’t speak English, it’s very frightening,” he said. “Many have never heard the word ‘autism.’ Imagine a doctor telling you your child will never be normal. The only thing you understand is that your child isn’t normal, and you want answers. But the only answers they give you are in English.”

For others, it is a lack of community knowledge and support that fuel the delay. In an interview with Real Health magazine, Holly Robinson, an African-American actress with an autistic son, said that even for the rich and famous, information is limited.

“I knew nothing about autism except for what I’d seen in the media, which was basically Dustin Hoffman in a film [1998’s Rain Man],” she said. “I had no friends, no people around me who I knew were affected.”

Fortunately, specialists have been working toward better, earlier ways to diagnose and treat ASDs.

Discovering Autism Spectrum Disorders

The following are some of the current guidelines for diagnosing a child’s autism between 9 and 24 months of age, as provided by Autism Speaks:

•    No back and forth sharing of sounds, facial expressions by 9 months
•    No big joyful smiles, babbling between the ages of 6 and 12 months
•    At 8 to 10 months, failure to respond to their own name
•    Lack of gestures (pointing, showing, reaching, waving) by 12 months
•    No speech by 16 months
•    If speaking, no meaningful two-word phrases by 24 months
•    Overall detachment from the social world
•    Failure to respond to displays of anger or affection in appropriate ways

In addition to behavioral analysis, doctors also look at a variety of genetic, anatomical and environmental factors recently linked to ASDs.

Autism has genetic ties with other mental health issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia, which may help doctors identify at-risk children. New research also suggests that those who have autistic siblings may have a 15 to 30 times greater likelihood of developing an ASD.

Anatomical anomalies are also linked with autism. Nearly 85 percent of people with an ASD have gastrointestinal issues. About 40 percent of those with autism also suffer from seizure disorders, such as epilepsy. In addition, recent studies have linked autism with a combination of enlargement in certain areas of the brain and reduction in others.

Autism could also have environmental risks. Expectant mothers who take prenatal vitamins may lower the risk for having an autistic child. Some studies say that people living in areas of high air pollution are more likely to be diagnosed. A maternal or paternal age older than 30 could also increase an unborn child’s risk for spectrum disorders.

Life After Diagnosis

Studies show that when ASDs are treated in kids between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, 50 percent of autistic children are able to attend normal kindergarten classrooms and experience significant IQ gains.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is widely recognized as the safest and most effective treatment for autism. It targets language and cognitive skills and is proven to cause significant mental gains. ABA addresses a child’s abilities in looking, listening, imitating, reading and conversing. Targeted behavioral interventions lasting at least six months and group therapy might also help a child with an ASD develop important social skills.

However, it’s important to note that treatment requires a strong, trusting relationship between parents and their health care providers. This can be difficult for those in the Latino community, who often feel alienated or face significant treatment barriers in the current health care system. What’s more, in many states, ABA programs are more accessible to families who have private insurance than those who are covered under public programs. For Latinos, these factors could make the difference in receiving quality treatment.