Minneapolis Somali Community Shows High Rate of Autism

August 30, 2008 11:00 AM
by Anne Szustek
Somali students comprise only 6 percent of the Minneapolis school system, but one-quarter of the children in the city’s early childhood autism programs. Health officials are baffled.

Somali Children in Minneapolis Racked with Autism

Rates of childhood autism among Minneapolis’ Somali community have been slowly rising over the past several years, say local health authorities. In 1999, there were 1,773 Somali-speaking students in the Minneapolis public school system—none of whom were in autism programs. But last year, 43 of the 2,029 Somali-speaking students, or about 2.1 percent of those in the school district, were enrolled in special education programs for the condition.

The Star Tribune reports that some 3.6 percent of Somali students were participating in autism-related programs as of July, around twice the Minneapolis school system’s average.

Statistics reported by the MinnPost show a graver prognosis for Minneapolis Somalis, with more than 12 percent of autistic students in district preschool and kindergarten programs said to speak Somali at home. The paper writes that more than 17 percent of those in the district’s early childhood autism program are Somali speakers.

Whatever the exact number of Somali autistic children in Minneapolis, “We’re definitely seeing it, and something is triggering it,” Dr. Chris Bentley told the MinnPost. Bentley is the director of Fraser, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that provides assistance to families with autistic children.

Anne Harrington, autism specialist for the Minneapolis Public Schools, told Twin Cities CBS affiliate WCCO that the Somali students “are showing the more severe forms of autism, not the broad spectrum of autism that we see in our general population,” which includes Asperger’s syndrome, a milder type of autism in which social development is more delayed than cognitive development.

See Minneapolis CBS affiliate WCCO coverage

Opinion & Analysis: Culture, health, history are all factors

A lack of awareness of the disorder as well as social taboos are hampering efforts to determine whether the high rate of autism among the Somali population is a statistical anomaly or if there are genetic or other risk factors at stake. Amelia Santaniello, reporter and anchorwoman for WCCO, asked Huda Farah, a Somali woman who works on refugee resettlement issues with the Minnesota Department of Health, “Is there autism in Somalia?” Farah answered, “Not many, not many.”

An unnamed Twin Cities Somali woman told the Star Tribune that she had contacted politicians, government officials and the media to raise awareness of the large number of Somali students in her son’s autism programs. Nevertheless, stigmas have forbidden her from telling her relatives about her son’s disorder.

Farah told WCCO, “Many things attracted Somalis to Minnesota to stay. Good health cover and good education.”

The Somali community began arriving in Minnesota in 1993 after the first phase of that country’s civil war. The MinnPost reports that estimates as to the Somali population number anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000—the largest population outside of East Africa. Some 67 percent of them arrived in 2000, however, primarily settling in Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located. St. Paul and Rochester also have significant Somali communities but there is little data on autism rates for those cities.

Given the lack of formal research, Twin Cities doctors have not been able to confirm if there is indeed a higher rate of autism among local Somalis. Dr. Stacene Maroushek, a pediatrician at the Hennepin County Medical Center, was quoted as saying in the MinnPost, “the impression that there’s an increasing rate of autism in the Somali community is definitely there. And people are wondering what’s going on.” The Minnesota Department of Health is assembling a “pre-pilot program” to help measure rates of autism among the state’s immigrant populations. University of Minnesota researchers are conducting similar studies with the department.

Genetics have been listed as one possible reason for the high incidence of autism. Cousin marriage is common in the Muslim Somali community. A study that was published in Science Magazine in July showed evidence suggesting a link between autism and family intermarriage.

A lack of vitamin D has been suggested as another cause. Sweden’s Somali population has seen similarly high incidences of autism—so much, in fact, that the community there has dubbed the disorder “the Swedish disease.” Two doctors, Susanne Bejerot and Mats Humble, suggested in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that due to the lower levels of sunlight, those with dark complexions do not build up the vitamin as easily when living at more northerly latitudes. According to the doctors, “With current knowledge we can not rule out that Vitamin D deficiency is a strong factor behind the so-called autism epidemic.”

Somali immigrant Farah Osman told WCCO that she blames immunizations for her son’s autism. “In rural Somalia, there’s no immunizations.” Harrington told the MinnPost, “They’re given more [vaccines] then we get, and sometimes they’re doubled up. Then their children are given immunizations. In Somalia, their generations have not received these immunizations, and then suddenly they’re getting just a wallop of them in the moms and then in the babies.”

Plus, some refugees staying at camps in Kenya and Ethiopia received the same vaccinations three or four times due to poor record-keeping.

Related Topic: The debated link between autism and vaccinations

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that no link has been determined between vaccinations and autism. Some parents of autistic children, like Jon and Terry Poling, disagree. In March the Polings won a lawsuit against a federal vaccine oversight body alleging their daughter Hannah became autistic after receiving a large dose of vaccine after she had fallen behind in her immunization schedule.

Thimerosal, a mercury compound used as a preservative in some pharmaceuticals such as vaccines, has been blamed for causing autism on the grounds that it allows toxins to leak into the nervous system.
A study published in 1998 in British medical journal The Lancet suggested a connection between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine and an increased risk of autism on such grounds. Many of the study’s co-authors withdrew support from the study when it was discovered that the rates of autism diagnoses increased in areas where there was a lower rate of MMR vaccination, however.

Fears over autism are dissuading some parents from vaccinating their children. Some doctors are linking lower rates of MMR vaccinations with a sharp rise in the number of measles cases diagnosed in the United States. So far this year, more than 130 cases have been reported, compared to 42 for all of last year.

The supposed link between autism and heavy metals sparked a push by National Institute of Mental Health researcher Dr. Thomas Insel for a federally funded study of chelation as a cure for the disorder. “So many moms have said, `It’s saved my kids,’” he said. Chelation, traditionally used to cure lead poisoning, washes out heavy metals. Critics counter that it is unsafe and can cause the leaching of essential minerals such as iron and manganese from the body. Safety concerns have put Insel’s proposed study on hold for the time being.

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