The New York Times published an article today about an apparent outbreak of autism among children of Somali immigrants living in Minneapolis. Apparently, the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health are conducting an epidemiologically study to determine the scope and nature of the possible outbreak. It seems that more supporting evidence is needed as the perception of an outbreak is based on anecdotal reports of local health care providers are parents:

One of the first to raise the alarm was Anne Harrington, who worked in special education in the Minneapolis schools for 21 years.

In the last decade, she said, “we’ve begun seeing a tremendous number of kids born here who have the more severe forms of autism.”

Last year, she said, 25 percent of the children in preschool classes offering the most intensive treatment had Somali parents, while only about 6 percent of public school enrollment is Somali.

Dr. Daniel S. McLellan, a pediatrician, said that when he began practicing at Children’s Hospital six years ago, he was struck by how many autistic Somali children he saw.

The over-representation of kids with Somali parents receiving special education services is intriguing. However, similar over-representations of minority and ESL (non-English speaking) children in special education classes have, unfortunately, been associated with a number of factors including biases in the referral process (see for example Klingner & Harry, 2006. The Teachers College Record, 108,11). That is, it is possible that these children are over-represented in special education classes because of biases in the process by which children are classified as “eligible” for special education services.

Yet, the cluster of autism cases may still be real, and if confirmed, the next step would be to explore the possible causes of such epidemic. In this case, both genetic and environmental factors seem to be potential causes. That is, the epidemic may reflect a genetic marker that is shared among a small community, or a genetic alteration due to higher-than-usual inter-family marriages. In the other hand, the epidemic may reflect exposure to a particular environmental condition or toxin .

Let me know if you hear updates to the Minneapolis cluster.

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One Response to An outbreak of autism among Somali children in Minneapolis?

  1. This is a fascinating and troubling finding. Are they investigating the effects of trauma in this sort of pathology? I am very interested in learning more about Somali immigrant youth in general; they have such a distinct immigration story and complicated context for development. Let me know if you come across any other good articles about these kids.

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