The national autism rate continues its upward march, the federal government said today, with New Jersey leading the way.
One in 68 children are now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder nationally — with boys nearly five times more likely than girls to have autism.
New Jersey’s numbers are even more startling: one in 45 children, with a boys’ rate of 1 in 28. “It’s quite likely there is one boy with autism in every classroom,” said Walter Zahorodny, director of the New Jersey Autism Study and professor at New Jersey Medical School in Newark. The girls’ rate in New Jersey is one in 133.
The new numbers, compiled in 2010 and just released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show the rate has more than doubled since the CDC’s 2002 survey.
What troubles Zahorodny is that the surge, which has continued unabated year after year, includes only minimal distinction between races, regions, or socioeconomic groups. “Autism has gone up in every group, every way you slice it,” he said. “It must be something that’s affecting the population — the whole population.” He said he would have expected that by now, “either by design or a lucky break,” we would know more about the causes of autism. “Yet that’s still elusive,” he said.
The CDC said the average age at which children are diagnosed is 53 months or 4 1/2 years. Since autism can now be diagnosed by age 2, those additional months and years represent lost opportunities for intervention, the CDC report said.
As autism became a more common diagnosis, experts initially theorized the rise was due to increased vigilance in finding and treating it. But that explanation only goes so far. “Yes, we have better diagnosis. Yes, we have better awareness. Yes, we’re better able to pick up on more subtle cases,” Zahorodny said. “But in my opinion, all those factors can’t account for a shift of this magnitude.”
Also debunked by the data is the theory that perhaps parents had moved to New Jersey because of the state’s strong reputation for providing medical and school resources for children with autism. However, the CDC found that of the cases reported from New Jersey, 83 percent were born here. That number matched Alabama, the state posting the lowest diagnosis rate.
The new numbers came as no surprise to Dina Schwab, executive director of Autism Speaks, the Princeton-based advocacy group. “The CDC is coming closer to discovering autism’s true prevalence,” said Schwab. “The numbers will continue to rise. There are still individuals who have not been identified.”
When he began studying autism rates, it was not uncommon to see small school districts without a single child with autism. “That isn’t the case now,” he said. “Even the smaller towns have a couple of kids with autism.” There are many theories for the rise — but frustratingly few answers.
“I honestly don’t know what’s behind it,” said Gerard Costa, director of the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health at Montclair State University. “With all our knowledge, there are some things we just don’t have answers for,” he said.