October 12, 2020

Brenda Barrio, associate professor of special education, is focused on helping to solve for racial and ethnic disparities that exist in special education. In collaboration with Susan Nichols, interim executive director of UNT’s Kristin Farmer Autism Center, she is researching the disparities in diagnoses and treatment of young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) backgrounds, who are far less likely than their peers to be diagnosed early.

“A big issue in special education is disproportionality, mainly affecting students of color, not only in diagnoses or disability categories, but also in equity to access to services,” Barrio says. “For example, if it takes a year or two to get services, a student’s growth could be significantly delayed.”

The team of researchers, including four of Barrio’s student researchers, will survey caregivers and parents of young children with ASD to learn some of the underlying factors behind the disparities. Early intervention is very important, and there is a critical shortage of practitioners – especially those who speak Spanish – who can provide a diagnosis.

“We need to not only understand the rationale of this disproportionality, but we also need to look at how we address it and provide access,” Barrio says. “We don’t have enough information from families. We want to learn more from them.”

Surveys and interviews will be conducted in both English and Spanish because Barrio says they are trying to capture more of the voice of the Hispanic and Latinx community, where there has been very little research.

Barrio says the community-based research will not only help children with ASD and their families across Texas, but it will help prepare students in teacher education programs as well.

Barrio is a member of UNT’s new Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society (CREEHS), an interdisciplinary effort to redress structural health, socio-economic, geographic other social disparities. 

“CREEHS is providing a space for students to have dialogue directly with faculty and join in the collaboration to enhance their communities,” she says. 

Xaria Hicks, a senior psychology major, McNair Scholar and undergraduate research fellow, says she’s passionate about this project because she saw disproportionality among children with disabilities from CLD backgrounds when she worked in a preschool during high school.

“I now have this amazing opportunity with the McNair program and my mentor Dr. Barrio,” Hicks says. “I am helping to advance the field and help individuals with ASD in diverse backgrounds to be more represented.”

Lack of cultural competency is a key barrier to children from CLD backgrounds receiving vital services. If a parent is concerned about a child who isn’t speaking yet, a doctor or a teacher might attribute this to the child speaking a different language. Or there might not be a service provider who speaks their native language. 

“A doctor might not understand or trust what the mother is saying,” Barrio says. “This can be a cultural competency issue. A lot of our issues in health care are related to not understanding or trusting our communities.”

Barrio is working toward increasing cultural competence among health care providers, teachers, administrators, diagnosticians and others who work with young children.

“The project will help us identify existing barriers to accessing autism evaluations and evidence-based treatment,” Nichols says. “Once we gain this understanding, culturally responsive practices can be adopted to make these time-sensitive interventions more readily available for families of children with ASD.”

Earlier diagnoses and treatment can lead to much better outcomes for these children, but the problem is complex.

“Then there also is health care access, and that comes from a lot of work within the community, but also within organizations, legislation and so forth,” Barrio says. “It’s a huge task, and it’s not an easy one for sure.”

She says the interdisciplinary aspect of the center is important because it is making the reach of her research broader, deeper and ultimately more effective.

“CREEHS is a hub for not just research, but connections with other organizations and connections within the community,” Barrio says, “Instead of me being a lone faculty member trying to disseminate this information through peer reviewed journals that only other academics read, together we can project it to those who make change – everybody from legislators to other institutions and importantly, the community.”

Watch Xaria Hicks’ presentation for the 2020 Fall Research Assembly.

Watch a video about the Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society: