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Autism Much Rarer Among Israel's Arab, ultra-Orthodox Societies

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Passengers, including secular and religious Jews, as well as Arabs, riding the Light Rail in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

A new study finds that autism among children and youth in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities is considerably less common than in the rest of Israeli society.

The study, presented on Wednesday at a conference of the Israeli Association of Child Development and Rehabilitation, is based on a data bank about hundreds of thousands of Israeli children and teenagers. It finds that autism is two or three times less common among Arab and ultra-Orthodox children compared to those in the secular and national-religious communities.

Scientists say the reason for this gap is not under reporting or underdiagnosis in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, but could be related to the practice of parents in these societies to have children at a younger age.

Autism is a general name for several neural development disorders, congenital or inheritable. The autistic spectrum syndromes are classified according to behavioral symptoms only, with severity varying considerably in each category. Research into autism is still in a relative fog as to its causes and how to prevent it. Today doctors focus on dealing with autism and surveying the extent of it.

The study was conducted by Dr. Mitchell Shertz, a child neorology and development specialist and chairman of the association, together with Meuhedet health maintenance organization’s directors of child neurology. It is based on data of more than 450,000 children and youth up to 18 years old in the HMO.

Shertz said the average rate of autism in ultra-Orthodox society is 2.5 cases per 1,000 children, and about 3 cases per 1,000 children in the Arab community. In contrast, in secular and national-religious communities the rate is 5.5 to 9 cases per 1,000 children.

“Until now we thought a more exacting diagnosis of autism or environmental characteristics could be the cause for the low frequency of autism in Israel,” Shertz said. “But now we understand that the rarity of autism among the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs is a key factor in lowering autism frequency in Israel.”

Another comprehensive study, conducted by Harvard University scientists, public health association doctors and the National Insurance Institute, and published in May, examined children diagnosed as autistic in 1992-2009. It found that 82 percent of them were non-Haredi Jews, 12 percent were Haredi and only 6 percent were Arabs – a lower rate than their share in the population.

Shertz said underdiagnosis alone cannot explain these differences. “We don’t see similar differences between ultra-Orthodox people and Arabs and the rest of society in other developmental problems,” he says. “So it’s unlikely that the gap stems from underdiagnosis or lower awareness of autism. Apparently the disability is really much rarer among the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs.”

Shertz and his team also examined autism prevalence in communities and areas where Haredim and Arabs live almost exclusively.

“We found, for instance, much similarity in the prevalence of autism among Arabs from East Jerusalem and from northern Israel, or among ultra-Orthodox children from Bnei Brak and from Jerusalem,” Shertz says. Underdiagnosis is unlikely to explain this, he adds.

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