New Partnership to Help Minneapolis' Somali Community with Autism Treatment

Updated: 03/19/2014 7:06 AM By: Brandi Powell

Good news for parents with children who have autism. A new Harvard study shows more high-functioning children with autism are going to college. KSTP reporter Brandi Powell spent some time at a local autism treatment center, and learned the latest on how the Minneapolis Somali community will soon benefit from a first-of-its-kind program.

For the Minneapolis Somali community autism is a foreign concept. "We don't even have a word for autism in our language," Mariam Mohamed said. She's a project consultant. "This is something very hard for our community to understand." Without knowing what it is, how can you combat it? "So imagine how hard that is for mothers," Mohamed said.

Recent research from the University of Minnesota diagnosed autism in one in 32 Somali children ages 7 to 9 in Minneapolis schools. Experts say the research shows the need for early intervention. Beginning April, help will be more available. "We're ready," said Julie Sjordal, St. David's Executive Director. "Our site is ready, we have a solid partnership."

KSTP took a tour of St. David's autism treatment center in Minnetonka. Like many autism treatment centers they focus on things like sensory skills and play. "A lot of times we might have different materials in here, like rice, dry beans, different things, snow," said Sarah Rehman, Program Supervisor at the Autism Day Treatment Center in Minnetonka.

"We've got mats, we've got balls, we've got scooter boards, we've got all different types of swings," said Megan Weber Program Supervisor at the new Northeast Minneapolis location.

But they go a step farther, having kids interact with kids who don't have autism. They say that is especially important for developing social skills. "They're able to work on their goals while doing fun activities," Weber said.

Next month, St. David's will replicate itself, in Northeast Minneapolis, partnering with Somali-owned, "Children's Choice Childcare."

The unique paring will provide treatment for kids ages 3 to 4, in a familiar way. "Knowing that someone who looks just like me will be with me, guide me," Izhar Mohamed said. She's a former teacher and will serve as a liaison at the new Northeast Minneapolis location. "Even the child will be able to feel safe, because she dresses like mommy, talks like mommy," Izhar Mohamed added.

"They feel safe and understand, and so this is groundbreaking for the community, absolutely," said Miriam Mohamed. It's a community now better prepared to understand autism, and how to treat it.

The Medica Foundation has provided $175,000 in grant funding to support the development of this project. The program will be funded by commercial insurance and medical assistance, as well as charitable giving from individuals and foundations.

The next step for parents: Contact a St. David's Center navigator at 952-548-8700 to start the assessment process. The assessment process can take up to one month as they work to find the right fit for the child.