Young Somali children in the Minneapolis public schools are over-represented in autism programs, the Minnesota Health Department reported, confirming the observations of many Somali parents and educators.

State health officials cautioned that the finding doesn't necessarily mean a higher rate of autism among Somalis. And the report didn't speculate on reasons why more Somali children were winding up in autism programs.

The Somali population in Minnesota was more than 24,000 in 2006, according to the U.S. Census. Nearly 2,000 Minneapolis public school students speak Somali at home.

The Health Department studied Minneapolis public school autism programs for the three years starting with the 2005 school year. Researchers found the percentage of Somali children in the programs was two to seven times higher than non-Somali children.

"What that doesn't prove is that more Somali children have autism," Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan said Tuesday. "That is the question that is still on the table."

The report also found that the differences between Somali and non-Somali children dropped significantly over the three-year period. Dr. Judy Punyko, one of the report's authors, said the decline may reflect changes in how the programs were administered.

In fact, the report said that one of the big questions is whether children might be misclassified when evaluators aren't familiar with the child's language, culture and behaviors that might be routine among some racial or ethnic groups.

Ann Fox, director of special education programs for the Minneapolis schools, said the district was confident its experts who diagnose children are getting it right. "If there was question, we wouldn't give them the (autism) label," Fox said.

She said the finding of the higher incidence of Somalis in the autism programs wasn't surprising, but it will take more data to determine if the drop over the three years studied was a trend.

Some Somali parents have theorized the higher autism rates were related to vaccines, lead exposure or vitamin D deficiency, but the Health Department report does not address causes. The cause of autism disorders in general isn't known.

Idil Abdull, a Minneapolis mother of a 6-year-old autistic child who has been a leading Somali lobbying for more research and support, said the report "laid the foundation" for future study of the issue.

"They acknowledge they have a problem," she said. "I'm happy about that."

Anne Harrington, who worked for the past 21 years in early childhood education for the Minneapolis schools, has been monitoring severe autism in the Somali community in for years.

She said the community is desperate for answers about a disorder that doesn't even have a name in their native language and wasn't known in their East African homeland.

"The Somali community is justifiably concerned that there is something happening here in Minnesota or Minneapolis that could be causing autism that they weren't seeing in their children in Somalia," she said.