NEWS DAY | Minneapolis Somali children and autism: New study confirms higher rates for Somali and white children

Do Somali children have autism more often than other children? That's long been a concern in the Somali community in Minnesota, and a recent study of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by the University of Minnesota confirms the need for concern — but also the need for more research to understand what's going on. The study found that, "Somali and White children were about equally likely to be identified with ASD in Minneapolis," but both groups had much higher rates of autism than Black and Hispanic children in Minneapolis and higher rates than the national average.

The study focused on children aged 7-9 years old in 2010. A press release from Fraser Autism Center of Excellence, which collaborated with the University of Minnesota, said:

"The study identified roughly 1 in 48 Minneapolis children, ages 7 to 9, as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2010. The numbers for Somali children were 1 in 32. This is considerably higher than the CDC’s nationwide 2008 estimate of 1 in 88."

The study compared the incidence of autism in Somali, White, Black and Hispanic children. It found that Somali and White children were much more likely to be identified with autism than Black and Hispanic children. For Somali children, the rate was 1 in 32; for White children, the rate was 1 in 36; for Black children, the rate was 1 in 62; and for Hispanic children, the rate was 1 in 80. The Minneapolis study did not find enough Asian or Native American children to produce meaningful statistics on these groups.

Chart from Minneapolis Somali ASD Prevalence Project Community Report 2013

In all groups, males are much more likely than females to be identified with ASD.

Somali children identified with ASD were also much likelier to have intellectual disabilities, reflected by a tested IQ score lower than 70. All Somali children in the study who both had ASD and had IQ records available had intellectual disabilities.

Much more research is needed. The study notes:

"These findings tell us that there are differences in the number and characteristics of children with ASD across certain racial and ethnic groups in Minneapolis. The findings do not tell us why these differences exist. These findings support the need for additional research on why and how ASD affects Somali and non-Somali children and families differently."

If autism rates are very nearly the same for Somali and White Minneapolis children, what does that mean? Are both groups getting more attention and diagnosis than Black and Hispanic children? Or are there particular reasons (not necessarily the same for each group) for the higher diagnosis rate?

It also seems unlikely that all Somali children with ASD also have very significant intellectual disabilities. Is there something wrong with the IQ test results? Is cultural bias producing these results? If so, is there also cultural bias in the ASD diagnosis, and how does that affect the diagnosis rate for Black and Hispanic children? Are they under-diagnosed, and therefore not receiving needed services?

And what accounts for the high overall autism diagnosis rate for Minneapolis children? One in 48 Minneapolis children was diagnosed with ASD, compared to 1 in 88 nationwide.

Overall, the most important message may be the need for early diagnosis, services and support. The report found that children with ASD in Minneapolis are usually diagnosed at about five years of age, although reliable diagnosis can be made much earlier, at two years of age. That's three years of no treatment and no services to the family. Earlier diagnosis can help families and children.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.

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    Mary Turck

    Mary Turck (editor [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is the editor of the TC Daily Planet.