New Jersey Autism Prevalence Rate Rises to 1 in 34

State Prevalence Rate Up 19%; National Rate Up to 1 in 59

April 26, 2018 — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report today showing the rate of children identified with an autism spectrum disorder has risen to 1 in 59 children nationally. This statistic is based on the CDC's evaluation of health and educational records of 8-year-old children in 2014 in 11 states, including New Jersey. “An urgent public health concern,” according to the CDC, the ASD rate has tripled since 2000.

New Jersey again has the highest rate of those states evaluated: 1 in 34 children — 3% of 8-year-old children — a sharp 19% increase from the previous statistic of 1 in 41 released two years ago. This percentage is higher than the 1.7% average among the 11 states surveyed in 2014. New Jersey’s prevalence continues to exceed and outpace other states. Minnesota is the next highest at 1 in 42.*


Why the increase and why is New Jersey the highest?

The New Jersey study’s lead investigator, Dr. Walter Zahorodny, an Associate Professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, suggests the higher rate in New Jersey is likely due to more people knowing about autism and referring children to experts to document their concerns. These detailed reports then provide the investigators a more complete picture of children’s challenges and possible diagnoses. Without as many reports, “other states could be underestimating the rate of autism,” he stated.

Certainly, greater awareness and public health education by the government and advocacy groups like Autism New Jersey and our partners contribute to the increase. New Jerseyans also have more access to diagnostic services, so more children are getting evaluated.

Autism is a complex condition. No single factor can explain why more children are being identified with ASD, although a combination of genetic and environmental factors play a role. In addition, some of the increase in the rates over the years may be due to: changes in the diagnosis and treatment, greater awareness, and better recordkeeping. For more information, the CDC’s Community Report on Autism offers an overview of factors supported by strong evidence and those that are suspected causes of autism.

Known risk factors such as prematurity, low birth weight, multiples, and advanced maternal age could contribute to the higher prevalence rate. For example, New Jersey has a much higher rate of births to women over the age of 35. The Department of Health’s Autism Registry Brief outlines these risk factors for autism and how New Jersey compares to the national averages.

Other Notable Takeaways

Race/Ethnicity: Historically in New Jersey, black and Hispanic children were diagnosed less often and at later ages than their white peers. For the 2014 cohort in New Jersey and the first time ever, there were no racial disparities as the prevalence in each ethnic group was nearly identical, demonstrating that public awareness about autism has reached and has galvanized minority communities.

Nationally, disparities in the evaluation and diagnosis of ASD across racial backgrounds continue to persist. For example, children with ASD from black and Hispanic communities were less likely to receive a professional evaluation before 36 months. Nationally, the differences between black and white children decreased in most sites from previous reports, but remained notable for Hispanic children.

Gender: New Jersey is doing a better job of identifying girls with a ratio of 3.7 (boys) to 1 (girls). This trend is also seen at the national level with a ratio of 4:1 (previously 4.5:1).

IQ: Among New Jersey children who had IQ scores available, 28% also have an intellectual disability. This percentage is consistent with national figures. Also, more children with average IQ are being identified as having autism.

Age of Diagnosis: Even though ASD can be diagnosed as early as age 2, most children were not diagnosed with ASD by a community provider until ages 3 to 5, depending on how ASD presented itself. No improvement from the previous study was seen on diagnosing autism earlier. This could be due in part to more children with higher IQs being identified, whose deficits may surface at a later date. Nevertheless, the goal remains to diagnose ASD as early as possible to ensure children have access to intensive, evidence-based treatment.

A Call to Action

Three percent is a sobering number. It is imperative that public funding keeps pace with the increased prevalence rates and ensures access to treatment for all individuals with autism. We are encouraged by Governor Murphy’s budget proposal that increases funding for services for children with autism. This is a wise investment because funding for children’s services both reduces the psychological and financial burden on families, and reduces the costs of long-term care for families and the state.

The concern is not only for children but also for adults. With each cohort, the prevalence has increased, and an increasingly greater number of adults will need services. Thus, steps need to be taken to expand the specialized workforce to ensure there are enough trained professionals to meet the needs of individuals with autism throughout their lives.

Through our 800.4.AUTISM Helpline, we are hearing from more parents of children with disabling social, communication, and behavioral challenges. These challenges range from impaired daily  interactions to a severely limited ability to do the things other children their age do so easily. Children with these and other challenges are in desperate need of individualized and effective support services. Their families also need support to understand educational rights, funding options, and adult services. Autism New Jersey is here to help.

Additional Resources

View previous prevalence studies

800.4.AUTISM Helpline

Autism New Jersey Publications:  Autism: Start Here (also available in Spanish)

*A previous version of this article indicated the second highest rate in the nation was Maryland at 1 in 55. We apologize for the error and any confusion it may have caused.

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