Minnesota Officials To Examine Autism in Somali Immigrant Children
Minnesota health officials are examining a "possible surge" in autism cases among Somali immigrant children in the state, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. In Minneapolis, 3.6% of Somali immigrant students were in autism-related programs as of July, about twice the district average. In 2007, Somali children made up 6% of the city's school population and 14 of the 81 children, or 17%, in early childhood education autism programs in Minneapolis. The "numbers have been creeping up for several years, especially among young children," the Star Tribune reports.
Anne Harrington, a special education coordinator in the Minneapolis schools, said the number of Somali children in the city's autism programs jumped from zero in 1999 to 43 in 2007. The number of Somali-speaking children in the Minneapolis school district increased from 1,773 to 2,029 during the same period, data show.
Dan McLellan, a developmental pediatrician and autism specialist at Children's Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota, estimated that 10% of his patients are Somali, adding that the group appears to have a more severe form of the condition. Last year, 25% of Minneapolis students with the most severe cases of autism were Somali preschool-aged children, Harrington said.
State health officials are not yet able to explain the findings. Obtaining an accurate count of autism cases among Somalis is difficult because the range of symptoms for diagnosis has expanded, according to the Star Tribune. In addition, it is "especially tricky" to determine whether autism is increasing among Somali children because it is unknown if the condition is less common in Africa or better diagnosed in the U.S., according to the Star Tribune.
The Minnesota Department of Health has brought together a group of scientists who will investigate the issue. Judy Punyko, the official charged with leading the group, said, "The bottom line is that we don't have enough information."
Catherine Rice, head of a CDC autism monitoring program who will work with the Minnesota study group, said, "We know that more children are diagnosed today (than) in the past," adding, "A lot of it is the change in what we call autism. But we can't say that explains all of it." Rice said, "We certainly get indications that autism exists in other communities of the world, but whether it exists to the same degree, as common, it's not quite as clear" (Lerner, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 8/24).