Somali Autism

Approximately one in 88 children has been diagnosed with autism, but in Minnesota, one in 32 Somali children and one in 36 white children have the condition.

A recent study–the Minneapolis Somali Autism Spectrum Disorder Project–reviewed the diagnosis paperwork to make sure the autism diagnoses were accurate, and concluded that they are. They did not go interviewing kids in search of symptoms, just looked at the records of people who’d already been diagnosed.

According to the NY Times, “But the Somali children were less likely than the whites to be “high-functioning” and more likely to have I.Q.s below 70. (The average I.Q. score is 100.) The study offered no explanation of the statistics.”

Well that one seems obvious: average Somali IQ is probably below 70.

Supply your own map if you feel like it
Average IQ by Country, from Memolition

Also, “While some children back home had the same problems children everywhere do, parents said, autism was so unfamiliar that there was no Somali word for it until “otismo” was coined in Minnesota.”

You might think it’s just something in the Minneapolis water supply, but another study, this one from Sweden, found something similar:

Children of migrant parents were at increased risk of low-functioning autism (odds ratio (OR) = 1.5, 95% CI 1.3-1.7); this risk was highest when parents migrated from regions with a low human development index, and peaked when migration occurred around pregnancy (OR = 2.3, 95% CI 1.7-3.0). A decreased risk of high-functioning autism was observed in children of migrant parents, regardless of area of origin or timing of migration. … Environmental factors associated with migration may contribute to the development of autism presenting with comorbid intellectual disability, especially when acting in utero. High- and low-functioning autism may have partly different aetiologies, and should be studied separately.

So what’s up with white kids with autism? Did they get screwed by migration, too?

There is one thing that Minneapolis and Sweden do have in common: lack of sunlight. Somalis may be particularly at risk of Vitamin D deficit, or some other disorder caused by differences in the night-day cycle at different latitudes.

But again, whites have similar rates of autism despite having had thousands of years to adjust to high-latitude winters, while African Americans, who ought to be more similar to the Somalis in their winter/light adaptions, have much lower rates.

In fact, I can’t really think of anything that whites in Minnesota and Somalis in Minnesota might have in common that they wouldn’t also have in common with African Americans in Minnesota. Or Sweden.

The obvious solution is that Somali autism might just be caused by totally different stuff than white autism. Perhaps migration itself caused the high Somali autism rates, or the stress and trauma of war and dislocation. Or it could have something to do with the Somali preference for cousin marriage, but perhaps the autistic kids never got noticed back in Somalia because of high infant mortality rates.

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