U of M report finds high autism rates among Somali and white children in Minneapolis

Riverside Plaza on the West Bank.
Riverside Plaza on the West Bank.

The fears started in 2008: That autism in Minnesota was more prevalent among Somali children. In 2009, the New York Times wrote, "Autism is terrifying the community of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis."

On Monday, the U of M released the largest-ever study related to autism in the Somali community, and it finally puts some numbers to the mystery. The report found that in Minneapolis, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder is higher among two particular groups: Somali children and white children.

See Also:
- The Minnesota Disease: Autism in the Somali community
- Minnesota Somali families facing autism

To reach that result, researchers combed through 2010 school and health records of more than 5,000 children ages 7 to 9. They looked not for a label of "autistic," but instead, for common symptoms and characteristics of the autism spectrum, so that a child didn't have to have a diagnosis to be identified in the study.

Their findings show that one in 32 Somali children in the study meet the diagnostic criteria for autism, as do one in 36 white children. That's higher than national averages, and higher than the prevalence in other groups in Minneapolis: one in 62 non-Somali black children and one in 80 Hispanic children.

"It is high," says Amy Hewitt, the study's lead researcher. "With a prevalence rate of one in 32 or one in 36, our communities really are going to have to rally so we have adequate personnel, specialists, therapists to support these families and children."

Though the rates of autism among Somali and white children were about equal, the project found that autism looks different in Somali children. Every Somali child with autism in the study also had an intellectual disability -- an IQ lower than 70. For comparison, just one-third of non-Somali children with autism in the study had an intellectual disability. To Hewitt, the finding is an indicator that Somali children with autism "likely have greater support needs and greater challenges."

Of course, the biggest question now is the "why," and any answers will require more research.

"One of the hard things about doing a prevalence study is that we end up with prevalence estimates, and that's all we end up with," explains Hewitt. "So the why and how groups are different, we really can't respond to that, because we don't know."

In order to begin to understand that, one of the next steps is to begin assessing children in person, and observing their families and environments.

"We need to learn more about these children," Hewitt says, "to be able to understand what is different, and why that might possibly be the case."

-- Tips or comments? Reach Olivia LaVecchia by email or on Twitter at @olavecchia

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