Mai Chang tells Hmong parents that the time to tackle developmental delays is as soon as they spot something amiss with their children, not in kindergarten or first grade. Fatuma Irshat tells Somali parents that ignoring signs of autism and other conditions does not make them go away.

A state initiative to help parents intervene early with developmental delays is ramping up efforts to engage Minnesota’s immigrant communities. The long-standing Help Me Grow effort has brought on cultural liaisons such as Chang and Irshat. They teach parents and child care providers how to spot delays and try to instill a sense of urgency in seeking services provided by local school districts. Most recently, the program’s website started offering information and educational videos in Spanish, Hmong and Somali.

“Immigrant communities are a big focus of our outreach in the metro area,” said Marty Smith, a project coordinator with Help Me Grow. “Some communities feel this is something they just have to bear in the privacy of their families, and they don’t talk about it.”

Fueled by federal special education dollars, the initiative started almost a decade ago at a time when researchers were learning more about the importance of early help for children with disabilities. As the effort grew in recent years, Smith says, statewide referrals for developmental evaluations skyrocketed — from about 530 in 2010 to more than 12,650 last year.

Two years ago, mindful of an awareness gap among refugees and other immigrants, the program hired several cultural liaisons to bring information to community events and have one-on-one conversations with parents.

Irshat points to a recent University of Minnesota study that found comparable autism rates in Somali-American and white children but significantly more severe cases in the Somali group — with lack of early interventions cited as one possible factor.

Mai says more Hmong parents are learning about developmental milestones and the free services available for children who consistently miss them. But that awareness gap persists.

“I still hear from a lot of relatives, ‘I have a niece or nephew who doesn’t speak, and I don’t know whom to go to,’ ” said Mai, who continued as a volunteer with the initiative after becoming a stay-at-home mom in January.

She says she doesn’t hesitate to bring up her personal experience in talking with parents. Her 2-year-old son got an evaluation when he hadn’t started speaking at 18 months. The hourlong intervention he receives weekly has helped him catch up.

Irshat says many Somali parents don’t know about the resources that districts provide to infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities. Some are reluctant to bring up concerns with doctors for fear of receiving a dreaded autism diagnosis — or because they assume problems will just go away with time.

“The biggest barrier is fear of the unknown,” she said.

Officials hope the new site, at, will fight misconceptions and help parents with an easy tool to request an evaluation referral. Irshat says the videos in Somali are especially valuable in what remains a largely oral culture, in which brochures often end up in the trash. The site also provides information about developmental milestones and the age ranges when most children hit them.

“The language piece is really going to help families refer their children even if they don’t know how the system works,” said Chang.