BACKGROUND: There is an emerging evidence that the migration and the ethnic minority status are associated with the risks of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability (ID). This systematic review aimed to investigate whether associations are specific to ASD or ID; whether and which migration-related or ethnically determined factors are associated with the risk of ASD and ID; and what mechanisms may explain these risks.
METHODS: A systematic literature search was conducted using Embase, Medline and PsycINFO for studies reporting on the risks of ASD and/or ID among migrants, descendants of migrants and/or ethnic minorities. Risks of any ASD, ASD + ID, ASD - ID and any ID were reviewed in relation to migration and ethnic minority status, with consideration to the study quality. In addition, possible underlying mechanisms suggested in the included studies were summarized.
RESULTS: Thirty-five studies were included. The summarized evidence indicated an increased risk of ASD + ID and a decreased risk of ASD - ID in migrants, descendants of migrants and ethnic minorities. These associations appeared more pronounced among children of migrant mothers, with origin in low-income countries, and among descendants of migrants. Data on ID were scarce. Suggested mechanisms explaining the increased risks of ASD + ID included environmental factors acting in utero and genetic factors (including consanguinity), while ascertainment bias was proposed to account for the lowered risks of diagnosed ASD - ID.
CONCLUSION: Migration-related factors acting in utero and/or associated with origin in low-income countries may be important in the ASD + ID aetiology, although further confirmative studies are needed.