The Minnesota Somali autism puzzle

by on September 1, 2008 at 7:32 am in Medicine | Permalink

Somali students comprise only 6 percent of the Minneapolis school
system, but one-quarter of the children in the city’s early childhood
autism programs. Health officials are baffled.

Here is more.  Here is a follow-up story.  Oddly Somali families in Sweden call autism "the Swedish disease."  There hasn’t been thimerosal in vaccines for some time plus that would not explain the higher incidence of autism among these groups of Somali children.  It also seems that the Somali kids have especially severe cases of autism.

So what is the environmental trigger?  A combined lack of sunlight and vitamin D activation is the only real hypothesis I can find

Mother’s testosterone levels, if high, can influence a male child to
extreme maturational delay. (A child’s maturation rate is set at six
weeks before birth.) If the mother has immigrated from an equatorial
region with consistent diurnal light cycles of 30% to a relatively
extreme northern climate, the influence of light on the pineal gland
influencing testosterone levels can dramatically skew mothers
testosterone. The question is, do the Minnesota Somali autistic
children’s birthday’s congregate in certain seasons. If so, this
hypothesis becomes more likely. See,

Yet even that sounds screwy to me (at least it’s testable), noting that if you pursue the links you will not find mainstream science at the end of the tunnel.  But the independent appearance of the phenomenon in Sweden and Minneapolis suggests it isn’t just a statistical fluke.  And the numerous Somali immigrants in Virginia don’t seem to have the same problems. 

Here are some further readings.  Here is a speculation that autism rates are higher in immigrant communities more generally.  Addendum: Here is more on Sweden.

1 liberalarts September 1, 2008 at 8:07 am

Sunlight. So, if autism rates, not just identified and labeled cases, are rising in the U.S., is it the obsessive use of sunscreen on babies and small children that is triggering the increase? Maybe I should read the article links.

2 Dennis Mangan September 1, 2008 at 8:49 am

One of the reasons slavery never had much of a hold in the northern US is because blacks died at a high rate in places like Massachusetts as compared to the South. My vote goes for vitamin D as the cause. BTW, this just goes to show that libertarians’ ideas about immigration and people merely coming here to work and pay taxes and make the country “vibrant” are fantasies: those autistic kids will be a net drain on taxpayers for the rest of their lives.

3 Andrew September 1, 2008 at 9:23 am

@Libertarian ideas about immigration,

Yeah, I predict a huge influx of Somalis to the US in order to have autistic kids so they can drain our welfare coffers. In fact, Al Qaeda may be behind it.

4 Ironman September 1, 2008 at 10:23 am

Here’s a site with a general (non-to-low technical) discussion of the connection between Vitamin D and autism.

And for the sake of “going there,” here’s the final post of a series that considered the greater incidence of Vitamin D deficiency in the black population of the U.S. as likely accounting for much if not all of the observed disparity between black and white life expectancies.

Who knew it wasn’t racism?

5 Anonymous September 1, 2008 at 10:43 am

Surely, the reason why slavery flourished in the southern US was because cotton grew there, and in particular because of an accident of history and invention: the processing of cotton was mechanized before the harvesting of it.

6 Tyler W September 1, 2008 at 11:52 am

While it’s true that the Somali population in Minneapolis/St. Paul is condensed in a small neighborhood, they do not exclusively live in one or two large apartment buildings. The population has existed there for a good amount of time (around a generation) and they have moved out to surrounding areas in Phillips and even in the suburbs of Eagan and Eden Prairie. The specific environment explanation Robert throws out is false, the families live in a wide variety of dwellings and economic situations.

While the first claim is definitely on the right idea, I’d say that the population of Somalia is a lot more homogeneous than any of us are used to and while I think it’d be good to at least establish a separation between the two populations, I’d wager that it wouldn’t provide enough causation to write off the validity of a direct comparison, especially if the populations immigrated within the past 80 years (I confess I have no idea the recent history of the state’s human geography).

I think the comparison between cities is apt, however populations adapted to tropical climates do not share the same genes and the specific chemical cause of autism is a mutation in chromosomes. I believe we’ve established that this is completely specific to the Somali population.

The vitamin D deficiency resulting from a lack of sunlight, though implausible sounding, makes some definite sense. Lack of sunshine encourages depression, why not autism?

This brings up two things. 1. It might completely validate the generic crotchety old man complaint, “Kids never leave their damn video games and go outside”. Autism development rates have risen dramatically since the mid 80s.

2. Could Global Warming and the depleting ozone be seen as a cure or vaccine for autism and other vitamin-D deficiency caused disorders?

7 Richard September 1, 2008 at 1:11 pm

I’m just throwing out ideas here, but what about non-genetic or non-environmental causes? For example, who made the diagnoses? Any chance one or two people are sending lots of kids to the program? Any chance there’s something cultural that leads to a diagnosis of high-functioning autism? Also, the article says Somali kids make up 6% of the school system, but how dispersed is that? Surely there are a few schools without any Somali kids at all. Any chance those schools don’t get many autism specialists visiting?

I certainly think there are/could be genetic factors involved, but I would first analyze the system that led to these kids being sent to the program.

8 Linda September 1, 2008 at 1:24 pm

St. Paul also has neighborhoods with a substantial concentration of Somalis. Minneapolis has a population of Oromo families (from Ethiopia). How do those rates compare?

9 jb September 1, 2008 at 2:28 pm

Dennis Mangan,
Way to confuse higher relative rates with high absolute rates.

10 eric September 1, 2008 at 3:23 pm

I live in Eden Prairie, a southwestern suburb of Minneapolis. We have about 5000 Somalis, and there is a lot of support for them in the community, offering legal aid, assistance with federal programs. They are friendly, but they do bring school test scores down, and having higher rates of crime (relatively, this is a safe suburb). In deference to Somali customs, we got rid of ‘birthday parties’ at school, and other such rituals.

But they are not all in a high rise downtown. They are growing, especially in our section 8 housing (which are townhouses).

11 Paul N September 1, 2008 at 5:26 pm

DC is cloudier than Minneapolis, especially in winter, so the difference in sun is very small. I compared total annual solar intensity on and it’s 259 for DC and 240 in Mpls, and season-to-season the rates are pretty similar. You could argue that Somalis in Mpls spend less time outside in the winter but I also wouldn’t believe that without data.

That said, I highly recommend Vitamin D supplements for breastfed newborns. Good luck getting your newborns to swallow it though, that stuff is nasty.

12 Apoo September 2, 2008 at 11:31 am

Please stop the talking about thimerosal, even as a side reference. There has never been any scientific evidence that thimerosal had any effect on childhood development and rates of autism. Vaccines were and are safe, effective, and critical to the continued improvement in public health across the world.

13 JP September 2, 2008 at 11:27 pm

If memory serves correctly, a sizeable percent of the population in Minneapolis is of Swedish descent. If this is correct, is it possible that there is some other factor that is unique to Swedish culture (food, for example,) that is foreign to Somalis and is causing the higher rates of Autism? Have there been any studies regarding autism rates in Somali children who live in Northern Russia, or other areas that are geographically similar but culturally distinct from Scandinavia?

14 Biopolitical September 7, 2008 at 6:22 am

“The independent appearance of the phenomenon in Sweden and Minneapolis suggests it isn’t just a statistical fluke.” Other information suggests it is a statistical fluke, as many and perhaps most of the statistical claims you discuss in your posts are. See also this post.

15 Stacy September 21, 2008 at 7:09 am

Hello??? Are you all blind? Vaccines are the main trigger with autism. Don’t doubt it for a minute. The fact that these people are lacking vitamin D is a great point. The Somalis come from a whole different environment and are then stuck with every disease known to man and probably are eating American processed food? The vitamin D would help their bodies to fight all the ingredients in the vaccines. Their immune systems just can’t handle it.

16 Pedro October 9, 2008 at 11:55 am

The fact that Somalis are dark-skinned (not “black”) and most Somali women tend to cover-up does suggest that perhaps a lack of exposure to sunlight is causing a deficiency in Vitamin D. This deficiency in Vitamin D may, in turn, be what’s behind the higher rates of autism in Somali children. Minnesota isn’t the sunniest place in the world and neither is Sweden, and Somali children born in both localities do apparently suffer from a higher incidence of the disorder. Interestingly, there isn’t a single Somali child who was born in Somalia and who later immigrated to Minnesota that’s currently receiving special education services for the disorder; all the Somali kids enrolled were born in Minnesota. Another possibility is that vaccinations are behind the autism puzzle: Due to poor book-keeping in the refugee camps, many Somalis apparently were repeatedly given the same injections before arriving in the US and Scandinavia. Many believe vaccinations cause autism. I’m thinking this may be why the cases of autism in the Somali children are so severe — they weren’t just caused by one lone injection, but by several and over a short period of time i.e. an overdose. Very alarming whatever the case!

17 Muqtar October 25, 2008 at 6:58 am

I think most of you ignored the heavy covering of Somali women whether they feel cold or a misunderstood Arabic tradition which they believe to be part Islam.

Somalis in Virginia state are mostly those who belonged to the former military junta, a communist junta who had no respect for Islam or Somalis.

Comparatively, those arriving in Minnesota were mostly poor and inclined to fall back to their faith mainly Islam.

18 Andy February 26, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Just found this randomly searching… interesting because I’m autistic myself. I think there’s a similarity between autistic thought and indigenous thought, so possibly the prevalence is an effect of people moving from indigenous to metropolitan settings, or of learnt indigenous patterns of thought being psychiatrically labelled?

19 Online Sports News January 28, 2010 at 5:35 am

The Mattson IF studies referenced here were not lowcarb/paleo diets. In fact, it seems the subjects ate about 300g/day of high-glycemic carbs. So yeah, it’s better to spread the sugar out over the day than hit your body all at once†¦I’ve yet to see a relevant study done on humans.

20 Pharmacy Technician test December 14, 2010 at 3:42 am

Thanks for the mention. Much appreciated. We are growing and will continue to do our bit for Rugby in Kenya.

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