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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Autism and Somalis

A press release from Autism Speaks:
Autism Speaks, the world's largest autism science and advocacy organization, today announced a collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the Somali population located in Minneapolis, Minn. Autism Speaks is contributing funding to this project to be initiated in early 2011. The Autism Speaks funding will allow rapid deployment of the project.

“There have been concerns about higher prevalence of ASD in Minneapolis' Somali population. We believe it is important to verify if a true increase in prevalence exists, and if so, why it exists,” explained Autism Speaks' Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. “In this circumstance Autism Speaks has both the resources and facility to allocate a budget to initiate this effort in a timely manner.”

In March 2009, the Minnesota Department of Health released a report that examined preschool program participation rates in the Early Childhood Special Education Programs of the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Results showed that there were more children of Somali descent participating in the ASD special education programs than children from other racial and ethnic groups.

In October 2010, Somali parent and founder of the Somali American Autism Foundation, Idil Abdull, spoke at the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) meeting and asked that a systematic investigation of the prevalence of ASD in Somali children living in Minnesota be conducted. Subsequently, members of the committee decided to form a partnership to fund an investigation of this issue. While follow-up plans are still in the developmental stage, it is anticipated that the project will investigate prevalence of ASDs among a select population of children in Minneapolis using surveillance methods developed at the CDC.

Thomas Insel, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Chair of the IACC commented, “This shared effort between NIH, CDC, and Autism Speaks demonstrates how members of the IACC can respond quickly and cooperatively to an issue brought to the Committee by the public. An increased prevalence of ASD among this specific Somali population would represent both a scientific opportunity and an urgent public health need.”

If findings suggest that children of Somali descent have a higher ASD prevalence than children of other racial/ethnic groups, then future research will need to address what factors could account for the increase, such as factors related to immigration or nutrition. Such research could be of potential benefit in helping children with ASD of Somali background and understanding the causes of ASD.

The Minnesota Department of Health released a report in 2009 confirming higher rates of Somali-American kids participating in special education classes for children with autism in Minneapolis. But it's still unclear why.

It could be that Somali parents prefer to enroll their children in school-based programs, as opposed to seeking help from autism specialists in the medical community.

Last month, Andrew Wakefield -- who has been widely discredited for his controversial research claiming a link between childhood vaccinations and autism -- visited Minneapolis to gather data and money for research into autism rates among Somali-American children. [emphasis added]

Just weeks later, the British Medical Journal declared Wakefield an outright fraud for faking data.