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MORE IS NEEDED ON AUTISM FRONT

The Ridgewood News - 5/18/2018

We have known a long time that autism shows up in children in New Jersey with some frequency. We have also known that there are not enough services in the state to go around, to properly treat or address the disorder. Now, thanks to a study released last week, we also know the issue is more pressing and perhaps more complex than we imagined, and that diagnoses continue to grow across our state population groups.

As Staff Writer Lindy Washburn reports, the rate of autism among children in New Jersey - now nearly 3 percent - is the highest ever documented nationwide, with nearly 5 percent of 8-year-old boys in the state on the autism spectrum in 2014, according to findings released Thursday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Disturbingly, autism diagnoses in New Jersey have tripled in 14 years and show no signs of leveling off, according to the study's lead researcher. The rate of increase accelerated in the most recent two years, climbing by a whopping 19 percent to 1 in 34 children.

Sen. Bob Menendez, responding to the report, spoke the truth when he said it showed "the glaring need" for more services. "You'd be hard-pressed to find someone in New Jersey who doesn't know a child, a loved one, a neighbor or classmate personally touched by autism," he said.

Living in New Jersey doesn't necessarily increase the risk that a child will be born with autism. However, according to Walter Zahorodny, director of the New Jersey autism study and an associate professor at Rutgers Medical School, living in the Garden State does increase the likelihood that a child with autism will be identified and provided with services earlier.

Indeed, New Jersey is doing a lot right in serving those with a diagnosis of autism, a complex neurological disorder that interferes with social interaction and communication. It affects brain development early in life and can manifest in a range of behaviors, from obsessive interest in certain objects and repetitive speech patterns, to self-injurious behavior with little or no ability to communicate.

While researchers and medical professionals continue to explore the issue further, the CDC report should serve as a reawakening for a greater awareness -- and more money allocated for services -- in New Jersey.

"This is another urgent call to action to provide funding," said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey, an advocacy group. She cited a need for more services - as well as more professionals trained to work among people with autism. These workers, incidentally, are too often woefully underpaid in New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy's budget includes $170 million for services to help children with autism before they reach school age, and increases the funds for children on Medicaid with autism. This is a start, but we don't see why that budget line can't be doubled, given the data borne out in the CDC study, and given a responsibility to also address the needs of children with autism who become adults.

While there is much to learn about autism, there is also much to do, such as providing a larger network of services for those diagnosed, and a broader support system for their families. We understand there are many competing priorities for health care services; autism, too often overlooked, must be given the full range of attention it deserves.

 
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