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By Elizabeth Gorman
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Short yellow school buses deliver children with special education needs to Minneapolis public schools every weekday morning. As students arrive at the elementary school where I work part time, I can't help but notice something about the autistic kids as they climb down the buses' steep steps: Almost all are Somali children.
Autism is a developmental disorder that doesn't discriminate against race or class, and it is on the rise in the United States. But in Minneapolis, the mysterious disorder appears to be zeroing in on one of the city's newest communities: First generation U.S.-born Somali-speaking children in Minneapolis schools are disproportionately identified as having autism.
"We're definitely seeing it, and something is triggering it," said Dr. Chris Bentley, director of Fraser, a nonprofit in Minneapolis that assists autistic children and their families.
Bentley is helping organize an unusual forum next month to discuss the issue. Members of the Somali community, autism advocates and officials at the state departments of health, education and human services have been invited to attend. "This is something we're looking at first in Minneapolis and then in St. Paul, but this is a much bigger issue than that," she said, suggesting that studying what's going on in the Somali community in Minneapolis may provide clues to understanding the causes of autism.