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Autism Studies Abroad Help Back Home

May 25, 2011

According to The New York Times, most of the developed world currently reports the presence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in about one percent of its children. However, a recent study conducted in Goyang, South Korea shows an ASD rate of 2.6%, more than double that. How is that difference explained, and what does it mean for autism studies around the world?

By Eric Garneau

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The Study

Over the course of six years, researchers from George Washington University, the Yale Child Study Center and other institutions evaluated every child between the ages of seven and 12 in the Ilsan district of Goyang. First they gave parents and teachers a 27-item questionnaire designed to detect signs of ASD. They then individually screened children who were flagged by the questionnaire. That resulted in 2.6% of all Goyang schoolchildren showing some aspect of ASD.

Why the Difference?

Typically, ASD sampling is done only by examining records of cases kept by special education and mental health professionals. The number of parents who've received positive diagnoses for their children is compared to data about the population at large. Therefore, many children potentially go undiagnosed.

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'Regular' Schools

Normative language aside, one of the key findings from the Goyang study shows that most of the cases of ASD - two-thirds, according to The New York Times - occurred in children attending regular schools. That means they'd sought no help or diagnosis for any signs of ASD and had worked alongside non-ASD peers throughout their schooling. By contrast, only one-third of the diagnosed students were found in 'high-probability groups' of disabled children or those attending special-ed schools.

Partially, that might be because of a stigma against ASD that exists in South Korean culture. That stigma may prevent parents from seeking diagnosis. The number may also somewhat be explained by the nature of South Korean schools, which operate in a very structured and predictable manner, allowing less room for variations to show.

However, those two-thirds in 'regular' schools might also have little to do with South Korean culture. It's possible that students around the world who have ASD, especially in its more minor forms, escape detection. The Goyang study showed that only 16% of ASD students in regular schools were mentally disabled, while a full two-thirds exhibited milder forms of autism. Interestingly, the Goyang study also found that 12% of ASD children in regular schools had what was defined as a superior IQ; that's a higher rate than children in the general population.

Lessons We Can Learn

Though studies which consider an entire population of schoolchildren can be costly, it could be that their implementation would lead to findings similar to those in the Goyang study worldwide. Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp of the U.S. Center for Disease Control stated her agency's interest in replicating such a study. Yeargin-Allsopp fears that racial minorities, the impoverished and women especially tend to go undiagnosed when it comes to ASD. Though its practices may not be immediately implementable, the South Korean study has at least shown us some potential major shortcomings in our work with ASD that can perhaps now be rectified.

Did you know April was National Autism Awareness Month?


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