Autism Rates Are Higher for U.S.- Born Somali Children in Minneapolis

By DONALD G. McNEIL, Jr.

Confirming the fears of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Health Department agreed Tuesday that young Somali children there appeared to have higher-than-usual rates of autism.

Though health officials emphasized that their report was based on very limited data, they concluded that young Somali children appeared to be two to seven times as likely as other children to be in classes for autistic pupils.

Dr. Sanne Magnan, the state health commissioner, said the finding was “consistent with the observations by parents,” who have been saying for more than a year that alarming numbers of Somali children born in this country have severe autism. Somalis began immigrating into the area in the 1990s, fleeing civil war in their homeland. The report made no effort to explain why the children had autism. Its authors did not examine children or their medical records. They accepted the diagnoses — some by doctors, some by school evaluators — that admitted children to special-education classes, and they calculated rates for different ethnic groups. They counted only 3- to 4-year-olds, only children in Minneapolis public schools, and only children born in Minnesota. They drew no comparisons with Somalis in other cities.

There have been anecdotal reports of higher autism rates among Somalis in some American cities, and no formal studies. A small study in Sweden reported high rates among Somali schoolchildren in Stockholm.

Idil Abdull, the mother of an autistic child who has long tried to draw attention to the Minneapolis situation, said she was “happy that they said, ‘Yes, there is a problem.’ ”

“I knew they couldn’t count everyone,” added Ms. Abdull, a founder of the Somali American Autism Foundation. “I know there are Somalis whose kids are under the bed and not taken anywhere and kids who go to private schools or charter schools that weren’t counted.

“But at least they didn’t say, ‘No, it’s all in your minds.’ If they had done that, I’d picket in front of their building.”

Istahil Ma’alin, who has an autistic son, said, “They told us that what our eyes feel, they feel it, too.”

Ahmed Essa, 8, who is autistic, worked on a math exercise at school in Bloomington, MN, with his teacher Lacey Brock.

Dr. Magnan said possible next steps included extending the study to Minneapolis suburbs or other cities with Somali populations or doing a study based on medical diagnoses that would try to determine autism rates statewide. But she added that creating statewide registries was difficult and expensive, even for easier-to-diagnose illnesses like cancer.

Dr. Magnan noted that this study found “strikingly low” numbers of Asian and American Indian children in the same special-education classes. But she cautioned that the reason might not be lower autism rates; instead, parents might not be enrolling their children in those classes, or might be sending them to private schools.

The study was done in consultation with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coleen Boyle, director of the agency’s division of birth defects and developmental disabilities, called the study well done but preliminary, adding, “It highlights the importance of ongoing monitoring.”

There are no plans yet to study autism in Somalis elsewhere or to do genetic studies, Dr. Boyle said.

The disease control agency monitors autism diagnoses among 8-year-old children in 14 sites around the country, and in 2007 it estimated that about 1 child in 150 had an autism-spectrum disorder. Rates are roughly the same for whites and blacks, Catherine Rice, another C.D.C. official, said recently. They are lower among Hispanics, possibly because of poor medical care or cultural reticence, she said. Too few Asians were monitored to make estimates.

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