Risk as Social Context: Immigration Policy and Autism in California

Fountain, Christine; Bearman, Peter Shawn

Motivated by the dramatic increase in autism diagnoses in recent years, research into risk factors has uncovered substantial variation in autism prevalence by race/ethnicity, SES, and geography. Less studied is the connection between autism diagnosis rates and the social and political context. In this article, we link the temporal pattern of autism diagnosis for Hispanic children in California to state and federal anti‐immigrant policy, particularly ballot initiative Proposition 187, limiting access to public services for undocumented immigrants and their families. Using a population‐level data set of 1992–2003 California births linked to 1992–2006 autism case records, we show that the effects of state and federal policies toward immigrants are visible in the rise and fall of autism risk over time. The common epidemiological practice of estimating risk on pooled samples is thereby shown to obscure patterns and mis‐estimate effect sizes. Finally, we illustrate how spatial variation in Hispanic autism rates reflects differential vulnerability to these policies. This study reveals not only the spillover effects of immigration policy on children’s health, but also the hazards of treating individual attributes like ethnicity as risk factors without regard to the social and political environments that give them salience.

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Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics
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April 24, 2019