Study Links Autism and Somalis in Minneapolis
A new study found that white children and Somali children living in Minnesota both suffer from a disabling form of autism at a higher rate than the national average.
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
A 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.
According to Wikipedia's account of Census data, the Somali population of Minnesota numbers about 25,000. The Census reports that Minnesota's non-Hispanic white population is 4,430,000, or 177 times larger. In contrast, the Somali autism rate is 1/8th higher. Thus, there are a couple of orders of magnitude more white autistics than Somali autistics in Minnesota. But who gets the headline?
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.)
"Autistic" has become something of a catch-all phrase for many kinds of retardation other than the more friendly varieties, such as Downs Syndrome. These days it often doesn't mean super-nerdy Temple Grandin-types, but instead just children who need lots of help.
The study offered no explanation of the statistics.
“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. ...
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. ...
All the autistic Somali children in the study had I.Q. deficits, Dr. Hewitt said. ...
The implication is that the Somalis have more severe autism than the whites, which could well be true. Alternatively, it could be that whites have more real Temple Grandin-style autism while Somalis have more catch-all retardation, or that Somalis have IQ deficits in general.
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. ...
New Jersey has traditionally offered excellent social services for autistic children. I know a family with multiple autistic children who seriously considered moving there for that reason, so its high numbers may be a recruitment effect rather than the result of all its chemical refineries or whatever.
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.
Or, then again, maybe not. Nobody seems all that sure. But who has time to investigate whether Minnesota's white children having an autism diagnosis rate 2.44 times the national average is a real problem when there are Somalis to worry about who have autism at 2.75 times the national average?
Somali parents in Minneapolis have complained for years that many of their children had autism symptoms — failure to speak, reluctance to look others in the face, screaming and repetitive behaviors.
At onetime, 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.
It's not like Shakespeare used the word "autism" frequently.
“I feel good, actually,” Idil Abdull, a Somali mother of an autistic child who was one of the first to demand an official investigation, said when she heard the results. “I was afraid they were going to say, ‘We don’t see anything.’ And we know that our kids can’t talk.
“Autism is silencing the kids of a nation of poets,” continued Ms. Abdull, who has spoken about the issue at the United Nations. “Whether it’s something in our genes and you add it to Minnesota snow or what, I don’t know, but something’s triggering autism. My dad taught me to recite poetry at age 4, and my kid is 11 and he can’t say two sentences. It’s heartbreaking.”
Dr. Hewitt and Mr. Rosanoff say they want to see more research comparing Somali children with autism to those without, including intelligence testing and genetic workups.
The utilitarian notion of the greatest good for the greatest number has been turned on its head over the years without anybody specifically explaining why.