In Israel, a lower percentage of ultra-Orthodox and Arabic children are diagnosed with autism compared with the general population — and no one is quite sure why.

That pattern, which is mirrored in Aboriginal populations in Canada, was the subject of discussion by autism researchers in from the two countries at a Hebrew University symposium this week. One thing is certain, they said — when it comes to autism in both Israel and Canada, not enough is known.

“Researchers hate to say that, but it’s true,” said Hélène Ouellette-Kuntz of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen’s University in Canada. “More research is needed.”

The symposium was held at Givat Ram, Hebrew University’s Edmond J. Safra Campus, and was the first of its type between Canada and Israel.

From Sunday until Tuesday, brief sessions focused on a variety of topics, including genetics, communication, misdiagnosis, pregnancy, family experiences, and services available.

Recent numbers from the United States indicate that among 8-year-old children, an average of one in 88 have been diagnosed with a disorder falling within the autism spectrum. In Canada, a recent estimate for children ages 6 to 9 who have been diagnosed is 1 in 94.

Israel’s prevalence is much lower. In 2010, 1 out of 208 children under the age of 12 were recorded as having some form of autism.

Those numbers, although still not at the level of Canada or the US, have increased in recent years, said Michael Davidovitch of Maccabi Healthcare Services, which gathered the data.

“In the clinics, we see more children — we cannot argue about that,” he said.

Asher Ornoy, of the Israeli Ministry of Health and the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, discusses services offered to Israeli children with autism at an Israel-Canada autism symposium held at Hebrew University's Edmond J. Safra Campus. (photo credit: Rebecca McKinsey/Times of Israel)

Asher Ornoy, of the Ministry of Health and the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, discusses services offered to Israeli children with autism at an Israel-Canada autism symposium held at Hebrew University’s Edmond J. Safra Campus. (photo credit: Rebecca McKinsey/Times of Israel)

Broken down into population groups, though, minorities in Israel have even lower prevalence rates: 1 out of 833 for Israeli Arabs living in rural populations, and 1 out of 386 for ultra-Orthodox Jews, compared to 1 out of 182 for the general Jewish Israeli population.

Davidovitch said Maccabi Healthcare Services was not able to tell if patients are Arab, ultra-Orthodox Jews or other, but rather estimates the data based on whether patients live in areas that are mainly populated by minorities.

There are several possible explanations for the findings, including lower awareness and a lack of services immediately available to Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, he said. Others suggested that culture gaps between Arabic or ultra-Orthodox Jewish children and those diagnosing them, as well as language differences, could play a role.

In Israel, the average age of diagnosis for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is 25-30 months, said Asher Ornoy, of the Israeli Ministry of Health and the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, as well as one of the symposium’s organizers.

From the time of diagnosis to the end of children’s schooling at age 18, about $544,000 — almost 2 million shekels — is spent on each child with autism for daycare, family services, school assistance and more.

“So actually, everything looks wonderful, but it’s not so easy,” he said.

The majority of these services are offered at standardized schools and places in larger and more established cities; children with autism in more rural areas have more difficulties accessing services — another problem those involved with Autism Spectrum Disorders research and treatment hope to improve.

“From Canada, it looks strange to say we have central points and periphery — because the periphery is probably the size of Toronto,” Ornoy said, to laughter. “But in the periphery, we don’t have these services described. There are fewer services for children.”