A study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin discovered a link between socioeconomic status and the diagnosis of autism.

The main finding of the study reported children from a lower socioeconomic background were less likely to receive diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder. There is a greater amount of autism diagnoses in children from more affluent backgrounds.

Dr. Maureen Durkin, an investigator for the Waisman Center and professor at UW, said this study was part of a Center for Disease Control surveillance program that monitors data related to autism. Durkin said data regarding autism prevalence is constantly collected and published every two years.

The study, which targeted years 2002 through 2010, focused on eight year olds. It looked at factors like household income and education levels, then compared them to the prevalence of autism diagnosis.

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“In the history of autism, which was first described in the 1940s, it was mainly occurring in affluent families,” Durkin said.

In the 1980s, Durkin said, researchers started finding that children from wealthier families were the ones receiving diagnosis.

Durkin said this study was trying to answer the following question: “Did the pattern we saw earlier persist over time?”

The study was unable to identify the cause of the differences in diagnosis, but Durkin speculated it was because of certain people’s lack of access to services that diagnose autism.

“[We need to] figure out the barriers to families getting a diagnosis,” Durkin said.

One of those barriers, Durkin said, is long waitlists. Since there aren’t enough trained people to make autism spectrum disorder diagnoses, it can take a year or more to get an evaluation.

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Dr. Tina Iyama-Kurtycz is an associate professor of pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and has 38 years of experience. She specializes in diagnosing developmental disabilities.

Long waitlists for diagnoses may have been caused by a recent policy change, Iyama-Kurtycz said.

“One new development that could be a game changer in these numbers is that in January 2016, any child with a medical assistance card would receive autism treatment fully covered for up to three years of intensive therapy,” Iyama-Kurtycz said.

Iyama-Kurtycz said this policy didn’t exist during the years Durkin’s study covered, and this change in policy may impact future research in interesting ways.

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The pediatrician said intensive therapy could cost around $75,000 a year and involves specialists living in the homes of children receiving therapy. This program is run through the Department of Health Services.  

Payment for these services should no longer be a barrier to care, Iyama-Kurtycz said, but the number of new referrals have overwhelmed local autism providers.

While the support from DHS seriously increases access, Iyama-Kurtycz said access isn’t only determined by cost, insurance or waitlists.

“More than just insurance, which many disadvantaged families have, there are the problems of transportation, jobs with little flexibility to take off time, get child care or other children, or distance from autism centers,” Iyama-Kurtycz said.  

She also mentioned distrust of healthcare systems can play a role in impeding autism diagnosis, in addition to families trying to balance other priorities like where to find food and shelter.

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Even though there are factors that could impact diagnosis rates, Durkin said autism diagnoses have increased since 2000.

Durkin’s study said the prevalence of autism has increased by more than double from 2002 to 2010, reaching 14.7 cases for every thousand children in 2010.

Diagnosis of autism involves “looking at social, emotional and behavioral facets of development,” Iyama-Kurtycz said.

Autism Spectrum Disorder involves a collection of behaviors and relates to development and anything that might change it. Iyama-Kurtycz said it could be caused by hundreds of different things.

At UW, the Waisman Center is central to studying human development and developmental disabilities, Iyama and Durkin said.

The rise in diagnosis and the shortage of trained professionals relates to UW students, Durkin said.

“We need to train more students to provide autism training and services,” Durkin said.