Minnesota Study Confirms Local Somali Children More Likely Than Others To Be Enrolled in Autism Classes
Preschool-age Somali children in Minneapolis are two to seven times as likely as other children to be enrolled in classes for students with autism, according to a report released Tuesday by the Minnesota Health Department, the New York Times reports. The department consulted with CDC to produce the report. Anecdotal evidence has shown Somali children in some U.S. cities have higher rates of autism than other children, but there have been no formal studies on the issue (McNeil, New York Times, 4/1). The Minnesota health department launched its investigation last fall, after parents and school officials raised concerns about the disproportionate number of Somali children in the city's early-childhood autism program.
The report found that between 2005 and 2008, 0.9% to 1.5% of Somali three- and four-year olds were in autism-related classes, compared with 0.2% to 0.7% of non-Somali children in the same age group. The gap between the two groups narrowed over the three years studied (Lerner, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 3/31).
Officials acknowledge that the report is based on limited data. According to the Times, the report "made no effort to explain why the children had autism," did not examine any medical records and only calculated rates for different ethnic groups of three- to four-year-olds born in Minnesota. The report also did not compare Somalis living in Minneapolis with those in other cities (New York Times, 4/1).
According to the report, the findings "are not proof that Somali children have more autism than other children." Because the study looked only at how many children were enrolled in autism classes, it could miss some children who have autism but either are undiagnosed or have not sought help from Minneapolis schools, Judy Punyko, an epidemiologist who headed the study, said.
The report also found that Asians and American Indians had "strikingly low" participation rates in preschool autism classes but did not identify a reason. Punyko said other studies suggest that cultural or other differences can affect how families view certain behaviors, such as those related to autism, particularly in young children (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 3/31).
Reaction, Next Steps
Sanne Magnan, the state health commissioner, said the report's findings are "consistent with the observations by parents."
Coleen Boyle, director of CDC's division of birth defects and developmental disabilities, said that the report is preliminary, adding, "It highlights the importance of ongoing monitoring." CDC monitors autism diagnoses among eight-year-olds in 14 sites around the U.S. (New York Times, 4/1).
According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, leaders in the Somali community are grateful for the report and hopeful it prompts additional research and support.
State health officials are exploring next possible steps, such as widening the study's geographical area and looking into whether autism screening and support programs are culturally sensitive, Magnan said. The "most ambitious and expensive step" would be to establish a state autism registry, which "would yield a much more precise measure of autism levels and any racial or ethnic disparities," according to the Pioneer Press.
Anne Harrington, an autism specialist who recently retired from the school district and an advocate for the Somali community, said further research "could lead to some answers for all children with autism," adding, "There are many resources that are needed. We need more outreach. We need more training for professionals and parents" (Olson, St. Paul Pioneer Press, 3/31).
The report is available online.