MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (CBS) ― Their colorful shops line the streets, catering to their own culture and drawing in ours. Beginning in 1993, Somali people began arriving in Minnesota from refugee camps in Kenya. By that time, Somalia's political chaos had led to the killing or starvation of many of its people.
For refugees, Minneapolis offered a place to start a new life, a new business, or a new family.
"Many things attracted Somalis to Minnesota to stay. Good health cover and good education," said Huda Farah.
Farah works on refugee resettlement with the Minnesota Department of Health. It's through her work that she's noticed something troubling within her community.
"We're seeing (an) increased number in autism," she said.
Reporter Amelia Santaniello asked her, "Is there autism in Somalia?"
"Not many, not many," replied Farah.
The Minneapolis School District is seeing a higher than expected rate of autism in its early childhood special education classrooms too.
"It's so glaring here in Minneapolis, I couldn't not see it," said Anne Harrington.
Harrington has been identifying kids on the autism spectrum for Minneapolis Schools for over 20 years.
"We have seen a tremendous number of children that are Somali, but born here in the United States or in Minneapolis who have autism," she said.
Out of 100 children in the Minneapolis Schools early childhood special education classroom program for autism, 25 percent of them are Somali. The district as a whole has only about 6 percent of students who speak or hear Somali language at home.
"They are showing the more severe forms of autism, not the broad spectrum of autism that we see in our general population," said Harrington.
Shaimake Osman is one of these kids.
"I knew it (was) something wrong, but I didn't know (what) was wrong. I never heard anything about 'autistic' or 'autism,'" said his mother, Farah Osman.
Osman said when he was 18 months old, he would bang his head all the time. He wouldn't sleep. He couldn't talk.
"They tested for school first. In school. Then after that, they said he has autism. And I never heard, what does that mean, 'autism'? What kind of sickness?" said Osman, describing when she first received her son's diagnosis.
Perhaps the most troubling is that all of the Somali children the Minneapolis Schools have identified with autism were born here in Minneapolis, like Shaimake. The district doesn't have a single child born in Somalia who immigrated here receiving special education services for the disorder.
"I believe (it) is vaccination," said Osman when asked what she thinks is the reason for her son's autism.
"In rural Somalia, there's no immunizations," said Farah.
She said parents like Osman in the Somali community all have questions about immunizations. She said they worry not only about the vaccinations their kids receive, but about the immunizations they themselves received before entering the U.S.
"When Somali parents come from the refugee camps, some of them get immunizations within those camps regardless of whether it's in Ethiopia or Kenya or other countries," said Farah.
She added that because of poor recordkeeping in those camps, some Somalis receive the same vaccinations three and four times.
"That's very worrisome. We need to find out what's going on," said Farah.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control said that research so far has shown no link between vaccinations and autism, but a number of studies are still underway.
Doctors in Sweden are calling for research on another possible cause of autism that could hold answers for the Somali community in Minnesota. Sweden has a high incidence rate of autism in its Somali children as well.
Doctors there are wondering if, for Somali people, a lack of sunlight in the winter, the widespread use of sunscreen, and efforts to avoid sun exposure are resulting in too little vitamin D being absorbed through their dark skin.
They theorize that a lack of vitamin D, possibly in conjunction with genetic or environmental factors, could be a cause of the disorder. They're calling for an official study.
"I think it's something that is interesting and should be pursued through research," said Judy Punyko, a maternal and child health epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health. She said we're not currently set up to do that kind of research here.
"We are attempting to develop a data system that will collect data that is reliable and valid so that we can identify cases and track them over time," she said.
The Department of Health is just in the beginning stages of setting up that system, but in response to the high Somali autism rates reported in Minneapolis, the Department has formed a small study group made up of school representatives, epidemiologists and U of M medical experts to look at possible causes.
"It's very concerning. It's astounding to hear the numbers are so large," said Punyko.
For now, the questions in the subset of our community continue.
"At least every week, I hear about (a) new family that have a child with autism," said Farah. "We need to really investigate and find out what's going on."