Why the High Autism Rate for Somali Children in Minneapolis?
Back in July of 2008, MinnPost.com reported a troubling finding, that first generation U.S.-born Somali-speaking children in Minneapolis schools were being disproportionately identified as having autism. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it will be conducting a study as to whether or not there are unusually high rates of autism in Somali children in Minnesota. The National Institutes of Heath and advocacy organization Autism Speaks are also working on the new study.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, back in 2008:
in the Minneapolis’ early childhood and kindergarten programs, more than 12 percent of the students with autism reported speaking Somali at home. According to Minneapolis school officials, more than 17 percent of the children in the district’s early childhood special education autism program are Somali speaking.
Almost 6 percent of the district’s total enrollment is made up of Somali-speaking students, and about 6 percent of the children in the district’s overall early childhood and kindergarten special education programs are Somali.
Anne Harrington, early childhood special education coordinator for the Minneapolis district, noted in 2008 that it’s the “‘more severe forms of autism that we’re seeing in our Somali babies that are born here,’” and that more than a few families have two autistic children. She also commented that the Somali community is struggling to find health services and understand autism. Many in the autism community and the scientific community, including Dr. Steve Novella at the Neurologica blog, offered commentary that, one hopes, the researchers in the just-announced study will take into consideration. Wrote Dr. Novella:
So the first question to answer with any apparent cluster is – does this represent a real epidemiological phenomenon.
One problem with the cluster hypothesis is that other immigrant Somali communities have not experienced increased autism rates. If there is an environmental trigger causing the two identified clusters, why are there not clusters in these other communities?
If it turns out to be true that autism rates have significantly increased in some Somali immigrant communities, above what is seen in Somalia or in non-Somali in the same communities, then we can conclude that something is going on and a potential trigger should be sought.
It also has to be noted that autism is really a collection of diseases, not a specific disease. So we may be seeing a new entity that has clinical overlap in features and symptoms with recognized forms of autism.
While it might seem that the new study will be focused on a specific population, the results will very likely be carefully scrutinized by many. Ever since the rate of autism in Somali children in Minneapolis schools was announced, there has been quite a lot of speculation as to why this is the case. Proponents of the belief that there must be an environmental cause for the dramatic increase in the autism rate in the past decade—once considered a rare condition, autism is now diagnosed in about 1 in 110 children in the US—have seized upon the high rate of autism in Somali children in the Twin Cities as evidence of a ‘cluster,’ with some pointing the finger at vaccinations and to a theory that a Vitamin D deficiency can be linked to autism. (It must be stated that there is more and more evidence that there is no link between vaccines and autism.)
Indeed, MPR News reports that, in December of 2010, Dr. Andrew Wakefield ‘visited Minneapolis to gather data and money for research into autism rates among Somali-American children.’ Dr. Wakefield is the British doctor whose 1998 study claiming a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine was all a ‘deliberate fraud,’ as reported in a recently published series of articles in BMJ (British Medical Journal) by journalist Brian Deer. It goes without saying that whatever research Dr. Wakefield conducts ought to even more carefully scrutinized, given the ‘manufacturing‘ of the data in his 1998 study.
Let’s hope that the new CDC/NIH/Autism Speaks study finds real answers to what’s going on among Somali children in Minneapolis.
By PV2 Andrew W. McGalliard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons