Autism rate up 12% in New Jersey; experts cite better detection
One in 41 children is diagnosed with autism in New Jersey, a 12 percent increase over two years for a state that already had the highest rate in the nation, federal health officials announced Thursday.
But the data, comparing rates from 2010 to 2012, don’t appear to show an uptick in the incidence of the disorder, a range of experts said. Instead, they maintained, the state is doing a better job of detecting it and getting services to children who need help.
Still, the numbers released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are daunting because they reflect a continuing trend of increasing numbers of families affected by autism spectrum disorder.
“We’re seeing a lot more children on the higher functioning end of the spectrum diagnosed,” said Dr. Randye Huron, director of the Institute for Child Development at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center.
The cases, which would have gone undiagnosed in prior years, result in early intervention such as behavioral therapy, which yields significant results, she said.
“I have seen amazing progress in children diagnosed early,” Huron said.
New Jersey’s rate is higher than many states because there is more aggressive tracking, which includes school records as well as medical records, said Walter Zahorodny, an autism expert at Rutgers University — New Jersey School of Medicine in Newark and an investigator in the research.
Overall, 32,581 children were identified with the disorder in four counties selected for monitoring in New Jersey by the CDC, according to data released by the federal agency.
The data come from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, a tracking system that provides estimates of the prevalence and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder among 8-year-old children in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.
Rates varied widely throughout the sites — from 10.8 per 1,000 children in both Colorado and Wisconsin to 24.6 per 1,000 children in New Jersey or 1 in 41. It had been 1 in 45. New Jersey’s increase was second only to Wisconsin, which reported a 16 percent increase from 2010 to 2012, according to CDC data. And boys are diagnosed at much higher rates than girls — 23.6 per 1,000 compared with 5.3 per 1,000, according to the CDC.
Not much difference
Michael Rosanoff, an epidemiologist with Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization, agrees that there’s not as much disparity from region to region despite what numbers say.
“There’s probably not a true difference in prevalence in any of the 11 states regardless of the report,” Rosanoff said. “New Jersey might be doing a better job of identifying kids with autism so the true prevalence may be closer to the New Jersey number.” One in 68 — the national rate which is the same as two years ago — may be an underestimate, he said.
“Even if it’s 1 in 68 kids, that’s more than 1 million children in the country” with the disorder, Rosanoff said.
Federal health experts say it’s too soon to know whether the prevalence in the United States might be starting to stabilize. “CDC will continue tracking autism spectrum disorder prevalence to better understand changes over time,” officials said in announcing the data Thursday.
Zahorodny says he interprets the data to mean the number of reported cases is not “plateauing” after dramatic increases in prior years. Over the last decade, autism rates have risen 110 percent.
“I am certain autism is not the same or reversing in prevalence,” he said.
“Most of the states are underestimating,” Zahorodny said. “They are not as robust as they could be. Half of the states are not reviewing school-based information,” he said.
Autism is a brain disorder that varies in degree but affects verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction, and may trigger repetitive behaviors. It can cause intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. But some people with the disorder may excel in math, music or art.
Improvements in detection are vital, some advocates said, but more needs to be done to address the issues of those diagnosed with the disorder.
Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey, called the data “an urgent call to action to establish and expand more high-quality educational programs and treatment services.
“We are hearing from more and more parents of children with disabling social, communication and behavioral challenges,” Buchanan said. “These challenges range from negatively impacting everyday interactions to a severely limited ability to do the things children their age do so easily.”
N.J. autism registry
New Jersey is considered to have one of the best systems in the nation for identifying, diagnosing and documenting children with autism spectrum disorders. Governor Christie’s proposed budget provides $164 million for the Department of Health’s Early Intervention System, which provides a variety of services for children from birth to age 3: identification of the disorder and referral for services.
Additionally, New Jersey is one of only eight states with an autism registry that requires reporting by neurologists, pediatricians, nurses and other autism providers so children can be referred for resources and services.
The CDC report shows that, overall, fewer than half the children identified with autism had received comprehensive developmental evaluations by age 3. This proved true despite the fact that the vast majority had developmental concerns noted in their medical or educational records before age 3. The disorder can be reliably diagnosed by age 2.
The new report also found that black and Hispanic children continue to receive developmental evaluations later than white children and continue to be diagnosed with autism at lower rates.
March 31, 2016, MARY JO LAYTON, THE RECORD