University of Minn. report finds autism hits Somali kids harder

Asad Cabdullahi MataanBy Asad Cabdullahi Mataan

Jeremy Olson 

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Autism might not be any more prevalent among Somali children in Minneapolis than it is among white children in the city, but the severity of the developmental disorder appears harsher in this minority group.

In a much-anticipated report released Monday, University of Minnesota researchers found statistically similar rates of autism symptoms among 7 to 9-year-olds in Minneapolis, regardless of whether they were Somali or white. But all of the Somali children with autism also had related intellectual disorders, compared to only a third of autistic children in the study overall.

“Somali children are much more likely to also have an intellectual disability, which means their symptoms, their characteristics, the ways in which autism presents itself in these children are very different,” said Amy Hewitt, the lead author of the study and a senior research associate in the U’s Institute on Community Integration.

Concerns about the prevalence of autism among Somali children surfaced among parents in 2008, and were validated in 2009 when a report from the Minnesota Department of Health found that Somali preschoolers were two to seven times more likely to receive autism services from the Minneapolis public school system.

The U study, released Monday, was an outgrowth of that health department report, and is the largest examination ever in the U.S. of autism prevalence among Somali immigrants. Rather than counting the number of children signed up for autism services, or even diagnosed with the developmental disorder, the researchers examined medical records from thousands of participating families and evaluated whether children met the medical criteria for autism — whether they had been diagnosed yet or not.

The net result was that one in 32 Somali children in the study met the diagnostic criteria for autism, compared to one in 36 white children. The rates were notably lower at one in 62 for non-Somali black children in Minneapolis, and one in 80 for Hispanic children.

Doesn’t address ‘why’

While the study established a high rate of autism in Somali children, Hewitt said it was not designed to address some of the pressing “why” questions — such as why autism rates vary so sharply among racial and ethnic groups. Nor did it address some of the persistent fears in Minneapolis’ growing Somali immigrant community about the origins of autism in their children.

The Somali language doesn’t even have a word for autism, a disorder marked by difficulties in communicating and forming relationships, as well as struggles with language and abstract concepts.

Some in the community believed that autism was only a problem among children born in the U.S., and not among Somali children who moved with their parents. Hewitt said that wasn’t addressed by this study, but they have birth record data to address that question next. The current report also didn’t address fears that pediatric vaccines were somehow to blame.

Hewitt said it will be important for future studies to analyze why autism is not only more prevalent in Somali children than other minority groups but also manifests itself differently. Among all children in the study diagnosed with autism, the average age at which they were diagnosed was 5. That is late considering that the disorder can reliably be detected by age 2.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting kids and families identified,” she said, “and getting them the support that they need.”