Study Links Autism and Somalis in Minneapolis

Donald G. McNeil Jr., New York Times, December 17, 2013

long-awaited study has confirmed the fears of Somali residents in Minneapolis that their children suffer from higher rates of a disabling form of autism compared with other children there.

The study—by the University of Minnesota, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the research and advocacy group Autism Speaks—found high rates of autism in two populations: About one Somali child in 32 and one white child in 36 in Minneapolis were on the autism spectrum.

The national average is one child in 88, according to Coleen A. Boyle, who directs the C.D.C.’s Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

But the Somali children were less likely than the whites to be “high-functioning” and more likely to have I.Q.s below 70. (The average I.Q. score is 100.)


“We do not know why more Somali and white children were identified,” said Amy S. Hewitt, the project’s primary investigator and director of the University of Minnesota’s Research and Training Center on Community Living. “This project was not designed to answer these questions.”

The results echoed those of a Swedish study published last year finding that children from immigrant families in Stockholm—many of them Somali—were more likely to have autism with intellectual disabilities.

The Minneapolis study also found that Somali children with autism received their diagnoses late. Age 5 was the average, while autism and learning disabilities can be diagnosed as early as age 2, and children get the most benefit from behavioral treatment when it is started early.

Black American-born children and Hispanic children in Minneapolis had much lower autism rates: one in 62 for the former and one in 80 for the latter.

The study had limitations. The authors did not examine children directly, but reviewed the 2010 clinical and educational records of about 5,000 children ages 7 to 9 and made estimates.

All the autistic Somali children in the study had I.Q. deficits, Dr. Hewitt said.


Autism rates vary widely across the 14 communities the C.D.C. follows, Dr. Boyle says. Alabama has low rates, while Utah’s and New Jersey’s are high.

Generally, says Michael Rosanoff, a director of public health research for Autism Speaks, white children are the most likely to have an autism diagnosis, but that may be because they are more often sent to diagnostic specialists.


At one time, 25 percent of the children in local special education classes were Somali, while Somalis represented only 6 percent of the student body. While some children back home had the same problems children everywhere do, parents said, autism was so unfamiliar that there was no Somali word for it until “otismo” was coined in Minnesota.


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