September 16, 2019 | 74° F

Autism rates increase approximately 40% among NJ preschoolers in recent years

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 Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, which is located in New Brunswick, conducts research on children. Some of these studies focus on the cognitive, social and emotional development of children with autism. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a study concerning the prevalence and characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among children aged 4 to the end of their adolescence, which increased approximately 40% from 2010 to 2014.

Due to the interest in lowering the age of diagnosis of ASD in children, as well as the public discourse surrounding ASD, researchers in 13 different states collected data on autism rates in their respective region. The importance of early detection lies in earlier interventions, which can be more helpful.

“The sooner one begins interventions for language and/or social delay, the more likely one is to see progress,” said Dr. Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor of pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS), who collected data for the New Jersey portion of the study.

Upon first glance, the statistics on pediatric rates of ASD in New Jersey specifically can be alarming, Zahorodny said.

“The prevalence of ASD among N.J. preschool-aged children increased approximately 40% between 2010 and 2014,” Zahorodny said. “We don't understand why, but it is imperative to acknowledge the scope of (ASD) increasing.”

On top of the growing scope of diagnosis, New Jersey specifically has the highest rates due to more complete access to the professional (health and education) records that serve as the detailed evidence of the ASD case-finding method, Zahorodny said. Therefore, the high rates may not be indicative of different environmental factors and may just be a disparity based on better access to the resources for detection.

Zahorodny also noted the importance of expanding research into the reasons for that increase and to enhance the early detection of ASD in young children.

The science of autism detection is beginning at earlier ages and becoming more advanced. Zahorodny said his group developed a brief ASD screener for toddler-aged children, called the Psychological Development Questionnaire-1 (PDQ-1), to enhance early detection.  

Although this extensive study brought the prevalence of ASD to light, there are even more trends without an explanation, Zahorodny said. The ratio of males and females with ASD is 4 to 1. The sex ratio is similar across race and ethnicity groups, according to the study. 

“The ASD estimate at age 4 is about 25-30% incomplete,” Zahorodny said. “That is, we expect to identify and additional 25-30% of ASD individuals from this birth cohort when they are 8 years old.”

The researchers will also be able to detect trends from these children as they become teenagers, specifically a sample population of adolescents born in 1998 and residing in New Jersey in 2014.  

“We hope this study will provide us with information about the developmental trajectory of individuals with ASD from age 8 to 16,” Zahorodny said. “This study will allow us to improve our knowledge of the challenges characterizing the transition to adolescence.”

Yara Assadi

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