Latinos and Autism: When Bad News Is Good News (Maybe)

For those of you who do not know me personally, there is someone very close to me who is on the autistic spectrum. I rarely, if ever, speak about it publicly, and I rarely, if ever, write about it. But if you know me at all – personally or professionally – you know how I feel about the curative effects of bad news. Especially in the age of social technology, the unwelcome news item can have the salutary effect of instigating change.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when reading about the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC’s) recent finding that the incidence of autism in the U.S. Latino population appears to be going up. While the causes for the bump are unknown, and the trend line is no cause to celebrate, I see a silver lining for several reasons.

Falling in Line

The bigger headline for the report is that the reported incidence of autism is rising for all Americans. Emphasis on “reported,” for while nobody can say why the numbers are climbing, there are a good number of us touched by the pandemic who suspect that Americans are getting better at spotting and responding to the early warning signs, regardless of the root causes. If this is true, then it’s possible that the Latino numbers are not just falling in line with those of the rest of the population, but that Latino families have become more aware and more proactive in seeking the help they need. The rise of autism in the U.S., particularly in areas where the working population is more educated and affluent, may become a mainstay in the mainstream press, refreshed with each new report from groups like the CDC. To see Latinos as part of this trend suggests a wide lift in general awareness that could help with early diagnosis.

Role of Media

But there’s something else. By breaking out a separate news story for Latinos, media organizations have an opportunity to spread the word even further into other parts of the Latino community. While the CDC statistical breakout created the opportunity for a Latino headline, the opportunity and responsibility to run with the story belongs to media organizations that understand the persistent demand for Latino-focused content, regardless of whether the content is in Spanish or English.

It’s still too early to see what the Latino news beat will do with this story, but it’s interesting to note how one of the most popular stories on the Latino trend appeared in an online publication catering to English-preferring Latinos. The story got a fair amount of coverage in Spanish-language publications and channels, too, helping to penetrate communities less dependent on mainstream news. Given the fact that Latinos have been less responsive than the general population to early signs of the condition (in an unrelated study, a group of researchers found “that white kids may be diagnosed with autism as much as a year and a half earlier than black and other minority children”), the spread of this story over the long tail of the diverse and complex Latinosphere might help to reverse a troubling pattern.

Role of Social

But spreading the word isn’t enough. As with most big things in life, actions speak louder than words in the autism community. One of the first things I discovered about autism is that the community of families affected by it has organized to help one another. Anyone who has gone through the experience of observing the signs and getting the diagnosis will tell you, there are people ready to help guide you through the myriad of options for education and care. What’s remarkable today is just how many community resources exist online. Without this kind of support, the attention that the media has brought to Latino audiences might create expectations that will go unmet. We’ll see how Latino parents respond en masse to the new reality.

We’ve seen the emergence of groups like the Arizona-based Grupo de Apoyo Para Latinos con Autismo (GALA), and the Chicago-based Grupo Salto, both which serve Spanish-speaking communities. Can organizations like this scale their reach and expand their footprint by joining together and creating a presence online? Well, again, to those of you who know me, you can bet that I’m hoping that this happens soon. In the meantime, the good news is that the story of Latinos and autism – much like the story of autism for all Americans – is beginning to get the attention it deserves with the people who can do something about it.

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