Autism statistics alarm Somalis

A cluster of affected kids has sparked an investigation in Minnesota. Health officials are puzzled by the data.

Last update: August 24, 2008 - 10:58 PM

As an educator, Anne Harrington had her suspicions.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Dan McLellan also had his.

Both noticed an unusual number of Somali children turning up in their autism programs in Minneapolis and began to wonder why.

Now that question has captured the attention of state and federal health officials, as fears about a possible surge in autism have swept Minnesota's Somali community.

Autism, a brain disorder that can cause disruptive and withdrawn behavior, has been rising rapidly throughout the country. The discovery of a cluster among Somalis, experts say, could help scientists shed light on why. Or, it could just be a statistical fluke.

Recent news reports have prompted speculation about all kinds of potential culprits, from vitamin D deficiency to genetics to vaccines.

In Minneapolis, fears have been fueled by some puzzling statistics. Last year, Somali children made up just under 6 percent of the school population, but 17 percent of those in the early childhood autism programs (14 of 81 children). The numbers have been creeping up for several years, especially among young children.

"People are worried," said Saeed Fahia, who heads a Somali community group. "Nobody remembers any autistic children in Somalia. I'm sure there must have been some, but there were not that many."

Autistic children often have trouble speaking, adapting to change or controlling outbursts, and tend to avoid eye contact and prefer to be alone.

Somali children appear to have a more severe form of the condition, said McLellan, a developmental pediatrician and autism specialist at Children's Hospital. He estimates that 10 percent of his patients are Somali. "I do think there's something up with this," he said. "I don't know what it is."

For now, state and federal officials say they're not sure whether Somalis in Minnesota are getting autism at an unusual rate or whether there's another explanation. But they're taking it seriously enough to look closer.