April 16, 2019
Researchers at Rutgers University have discovered that preschoolers in New Jersey have the highest incidence of autism ever recorded in the United States, according to an April 15 report by News-Medical.net.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today.
Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who was responsible for running the study—in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in New Jersey—has revealed that, among four-year-olds, the rate of autism increased by 43% between 2010 and 2014; with one out of every 23 four-year-old boys being diagnosed with autism.
Zahorodny said that the increasing rates of autism in children in the Garden State show no signs of slowing, noting, “The explosive rate of autism is impossible to ignore. There’s no let-up. I really don’t understand why the rate is going up in this way.”
Risk factors associated with ASD incidence include advanced parental age, maternal illness during pregnancy, genetic mutations, and premature birth.
“These are true influences exerting an effect, but they are not enough to explain the high rate of autism prevalence,” Zahorodny said.
“There are still undefined environmental risks that contribute to this significant increase—factors that could affect a child in [his or her] development in utero or related to birth complications or to the newborn period. We need more research into non-genetic triggers for autism.”
Possible symptoms of autism in preschool-age children include delayed speech development, rejecting physical gestures of affection, avoiding eye contact, showing little interest in interacting with other children, or preferring to play with toys in a repetitive manner over engaging with imaginative play.
Children who are diagnosed with autism by their fourth birthday are often diagnosed early because they present moderate to severe symptoms of autism and catch the attention of pediatricians and early childhood educators. One in 35 children in New Jersey is diagnosed by this milestone.
The study analyzed data from the health and special education records of 129,354 children who turned four between 2010 and 2014, along with 128,655 children who were 8 years old during the same period.
The data for New Jersey was sourced from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM), a network that has monitored rates of autism diagnoses for almost 20 years.
Along with researchers in New Jersey, researchers in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin analyzed health records of almost 71,000 children.
Disparities in ASD prevalence were also highlighted by the study, with the prevalence of ASD in four-year-old white children standing at 7.7 per 1,000 children in Missouri (2014), but 29.3 in New Jersey (2014). Data for black children in New Jersey showed a prevalence of 24.7 per 1,000 (2014), and prevalence in Hispanic children was 28.2 per 1,000 in New Jersey (2014).
Zahorodny deemed the results to be “consistent, broad, and startling,” believing that “It’s very likely that the next time we survey autism among children, the rate will be even higher.”
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