New Jersey has a shockingly high autism rate in one age group – the highest ever recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers say. And nobody seems to know why.
The report, released Thursday by Rutgers University and the CDC, found that about one in 59 4-year-old children has autism in America. New Jersey’s rate was the highest of the states studied: one in 35.
That puts the national rate of autism at 1.7 percent of the 4-year-old childhood population and New Jersey’s autism rate at 3 percent. Twenty years ago, the New Jersey rate was 1 percent.
Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School
who directed the New Jersey portion of the study, called the results “consistent, broad and startling.”
Zahorodny said it was the highest rate ever recorded for the 4-year-old population, and he also thinks the number will continue to rise since it tripled in what he considers a short amount of time.
“It is very shocking because it is for this group of children,” Zahorodny told Patch. “It means that we could identify even more children.”
The new report, which was issued by the CDC but uses research by Rutgers University, also shows that the percentage of 4-year-old children with autism spectrum disorder in New Jersey increased 43 percent from 2010 to 2014 in the state.
The researchers can’t explain why autism rates have increased not just in New Jersey, but across the United States.
Factors associated with a higher risk include advanced parental age (children of parents over age 30 have heightened risk), maternal illness during pregnancy, genetic mutations, birth before 37 weeks gestation and multiple births, according to the release.
“These are true influences exerting an effect, but they are not enough to explain the high rate of autism prevalence,” said Zahorodny. “There are still undefined environmental risks that contribute to this significant increase, factors that could affect a child in its development in utero or related to birth complications or to the newborn period. We need more research into non-genetic triggers for autism.”
New Jersey is known for excellent clinical and educational services for autism spectrum disorder, so the state’s higher rates are likely due to more accurate or complete reporting based on education and health care records, the researchers said.
Similar studies were conducted in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.
The researchers analyzed information from the health and special education records of 129,354 children who were 4 years old between 2010 to 2014 and 128,655 children who were 8 years old in that time period, according to a release from Rutgers University.
They used the guidelines for autism spectrum disorder in the “American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–IV” for their primary findings, according to the release.
Across the network, the researchers found the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders ranged from a low of 8 per 1,000 children in Missouri to a high of 28 per 1,000 children in New Jersey. The average was 13 per 1,000 children.
The disorder is about two times more common among boys than girls and white children are more often diagnosed than black or Hispanic children, according to the release.
Although the estimates are not representative of the country as a whole, they are considered the benchmarks of autism spectrum disorder prevalence, Zahorodny said.
The age that children received their first evaluation ranged from 28 months in North Carolina to 39 months in Wisconsin. The researchers discovered that children with an intellectual disability or other condition were more likely to be evaluated earlier than age 4, which gives them an advantage.
“Children who are evaluated for autism early – around their second birthday – often respond better to treatment than those who are diagnosed later,” Zahorodny said. “However, it appears that only the most seriously affected children are being evaluated at the crucial time, which can delay access to treatment and special services.”
The average age of diagnosis – 53 months – has not changed in 15 years.
“Despite our greater awareness, we are not effective yet in early detection,” he said. “Our goal should be systematic, universal screening that pediatricians and other health providers provide at regular visits starting at 18 months to identify autism as soon as possible.”