Study: Mpls. Somali, white children equally susceptible to autism

Somali and white children in Minneapolis were about equally likely to be identified with an autism spectrum disorder, new research shows.

One in 32 Somali children ages 7 to 9 showed an autism disorder. The rate was 1 in 36 for white children, University of Minnesota researchers found when the reviewed the clinical and educational records of more than 5,000 children from 2010.

The differences in the two estimates are not considered significant. But compared to other ethnic groups, the Somali and white population autism rates are higher.

The findings showed that non-Somali black and Hispanic children were much less likely to be identified with autism spectrum disorder than Somali and white children. Among Hispanic children, the rate was 1 in 80 and among non-Somali Black children it was 1 in 62.

Estimates for Native American and Asian kids couldn't be calculated due to their low numbers.

Researchers don't know why Somali and white children were identified more than black and Hispanic children as having an autism disorder, said Amy Hewitt, the U's primary investigator on the project.

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The study, she added, was not designed to answer those questions.

"What it does tell us is that there are some pretty significant differences in the way that (autism) looks and the way it affects children depending on the racial or ethnic group they're in and it tells us we need to explore more," she said.

The findings also revealed that autism may affect kids differently depending on their race. All of the Somali children in the study also had an intellectual disability, as measured by lower IQ scores.

Hewitt says the study doesn't explain why that might be the case.

Overall, the Minneapolis study estimated that 1 in 48 children had an autism spectrum disorder. That would appear to be much higher than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's national autism estimate of 1 in 88 children.

The U of M authors cautioned against comparing the Minneapolis figures to the CDC's estimate because the studies were conducted in different years and the ages of the students are not the same.

However, the estimates in Minneapolis are higher than most other communities that the CDC tracks, said CDC epidemiologist Lisa Wiggins.

"What we know from the results of past reports is that these rates are high, but they are not unprecedented," Wiggins said.

Previously, a community in northern Utah reported to the CDC that it had an autism rate for whites of 1 in 25.

While there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to autism and its prevalence in Minnesota, the Minneapolis study does reveal some areas where immediate improvements could be made, Wiggins said.

The study found that most Minneapolis children are not getting diagnosed until 5 years old, an age Wiggins said it rather late in the process.

"One in 32 or one in 36 children, that means your neighbor or somebody in your family likely has autism," said Hewitt. "It's just really important that we get individuals and their families connected to services."