N.J. shows high rate of autism in study
Findings stir debate among the experts
Friday, February 09, 2007
BY PEGGY O'CROWLEY
One of every 94 children in New Jersey has autism, the worst rate among the states tested in the most comprehensive study of the disease. The results already have sparked a debate over whether the findings are due to environmental factors or better detection methods. The study, released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at the prevalence of the disorder in 14 states by analyzing health and education records of children but did not search for causes.
In New Jersey, the study included nearly 30,000 children in Essex, Union, Hudson and Ocean counties and found the rate to be 10.6 cases of autism per 1,000 children (or 1 in 94), compared to an average of 6.6 per 1,000 (1 in 152) children overall.
The statistics are even worse for boys where New Jersey's rate is 16.8 per 1,000 (1 in 60) compared to girls (4 in 1,000), according to the study.
"Autism is more common than we believed and is a public health concern," said Catherine Rice, a behavioral scientist who led the study.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological condition characterized by impairments in social, communicative and behavioral development. The severity of autism varies over a spectrum and is more than three times as common in boys. Whites are diagnosed at higher rates than African-Americans or Hispanics.
Officials suggested one reason for New Jersey's higher rates is an aggressive system of assessment and treatment for children with autism. There is also a higher concentration of autism experts, such as pediatric neurologists and developmental pediatricians, than in places like West Virginia, where rates were low. Other states studied included Arizona, Maryland and Wisconsin.
Another reason may be that the definition of autism has expanded within the last decade to include milder versions of the disorder, said Melissa Nishawala, a child psychiatrist who heads the Autism Spectrum Disorders Service at the New York University Child Study Center.
Walter Zahorodny, who heads the New Jersey Autism Study, attributed the state's autism rates to early intervention and school services for autistic children, and heightened awareness among parents. Children with perceived problems are evaluated by study teams assigned to schools. Children under 3 are evaluated by early intervention teams and given therapy under a program of the state Health and Senior Services Department.
The number of toddlers in the early intervention program has been rising steadily, said State Health Commissioner Fred M. Jacobs. The budget for the program increased from $22 million in 2000 to $79 million this year, $11 million short of the amount needed for the entire fiscal year, he said.