The lived experience of being autistic and the lived experience of being Black in America both put youth at higher risk for developing depressive symptoms. Current research show rates of depression for autistic youth overall are between 2 and 4 times that of non-autistic youth. Common behaviors associated with autism such as social communication deficits and increased isolation have been found to increase the risk of experiencing depression. Additionally, many of the social experiences that autistic youth face such as, stigma, bullying and low employment outcomes are associated with an increased risk of depression. Black autistic youth experience these same factors while also facing increased risk of stressful life circumstances associated with being Black such as high rates of poverty, high rates of community violence, racism and discrimination, and community isolation. Though it would seem that Black autistic youth would be more likely to experience depressive symptoms, there currently is no standing literature that examines potential racial disparities among autistic youth experiencing depression.
We aimed to examine racial differences in depressive symptoms among autistic transition age youth using baseline data collected as part of a multi-site randomized controlled trial. We hypothesize that Black autistic youth would have elevated depressive symptoms beyond what is experienced by their White autistic peers. Participants in this study included 13 Black and 26 White autistic transition age youth between ages 16 and 26 years old. Using bivariate analysis including t-tests and chi-square we compared the two groups across demographic, cognitive, and behavioral variables. Then using analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) we examined differences in reported depressive symptoms. The brief version of the Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (b-MFQ) was used to measure depressive symptoms.
The bivariate analysis reported that the Black participants were significantly older than White participants (m = 21.3, sd = 2.7 vs. m = 19.5, sd = 2.7; t = 2.0, p = 0.05) but reported no other statistical differences in demographic, cognitive or behavioral characteristics between the White and Black participants. The ANCOVA results showed Black participants had significantly higher depressive symptoms than the White participants (m = 7.3, sd = 4.4 vs. m = 3.8, sd = 3.6; t = 2.6, p = 0.013). Given the significant differences in age, we controlled for age in the ANCOVA analysis and found that the disparity was still significant (m = 8.0, se = 1.1 vs. m = 3.8, se = 0.8; F1,32 = 9.0, p = 0.005).
Conclusion and Implications:
This study presents initial evidence of a significant racial disparity between Black and White autistic youth. Black youth in the study reported significantly higher depressive symptoms as compared to White participants. Findings from this study speak to an important need to properly examine racial disparities in depression among autistic youth. Furthermore, it calls for greater examination of Black autistic youth’s specific experiences with depression.