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Study on intellectual disability risk in Somali kids with autism

In 2009, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed what some Somali parents suspected: children of Somali heritage in the U.S seemed especially apt to be diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder. Indeed, the agency found, Somali preschoolers in the Minneapolis Public Schools were two- to seven-times more likely to be receiving services for autism than their peers. What was happening?

The answer could be significant to parents and policymakers in Wisconsin. As you may know, Somalis fleeing the civil wars in that country began coming to America around 1993, and one of the largest groups of refugees settled in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas, including Western Wisconsin.

University of Minnesota researchers have just finished a study of 7- to 9-year-olds in Minneapolis. They considered not only children who had been diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, but also those with no diagnosis but who met the clinical criteria.

Surprisingly, both children on Somali heritage and white children in the study tended to suffer from autism at a greater rate than the national average, with both Somali and white children at statistically similar rates. Moreover, non-Somali African-American children and Latino kids suffered at substantially lower rates than their Somali and white peers. The Star Tribune did not report data on Native American kids.

Unfortunately, the researchers also found that, while around a third of all children with autism in the study also suffered from an intellectual disability, all of the children of Somali heritage in the study did.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean that all Somali kids with an autism-spectrum disorder have intellectual disabilities -- the sample size wasn’t large enough for such a sweeping conclusion. It does confirm, however, that Somali children with autism are much more likely to suffer from intellectual disabilities, at least in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

The study doesn’t offer an explanation. Further research will be needed to determine whether there are issues specific to the Minneapolis Schools that make these children more likely to present with symptoms of autism or intellectual disabilities. Somali parents would like to know whether only children born in the U.S. are at greater risk, and whether the findings are limited to Minneapolis. Everyone would like to understand what’s happening and why.

To maximize the chance for adaptive training, rehabilitation and disability services, children should be evaluated for autism or intellectual disabilities as early as possible, ideally around age two.

Source: Star Tribune, “Autism hits Somali kids harder, University of Minnesota study finds,” Jeremy Olson, Dec. 16, 2013

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