Most New Jersey residents know someone who's been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder — nearly a third have a child relative with autism — but regular interaction with this population is far less common, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released Monday.

In the poll, which was conducted in collaboration with the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence at Rutgers University, 8 in 10 New Jersey adults said they know someone who's been diagnosed with the developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.

Sixty-eight percent know an ASD-diagnosed child outside of their family and 48% know a diagnosed adult beyond their family, according to the poll. A child family member with ASD was cited by 31% of respondents, and an adult family member by 18%.

"Those who are a parent are more likely to know somone with autism than those who are not," noted Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.

Despite these connections, few New Jersey residents interact regularly with individuals who have autism, the poll finds. About a quarter interact with an autistic individual weekly, and 20% have monthly interactions. A quarter have no interactions at all with ASD-diagnosed individuals.

The percentage of kids diagnosed with autism is higher in New Jersey than in any other state. Experts in the field believe this is linked to a mature advocacy network that's continually pushing for autism awareness, rather than an actual developmental difference that can be cited in New Jersey youngsters.

Elizabeth Torres, director of the New Jersey Autism Center for Excellence, said the American Psychiatric Association has already included sensory issues in their official manual as part of the criteria for diagnosing autism, but the public wrongly perceives the scope of the disorder.

More than half of New Jersey poll respondents said they've seen or heard ASD described as a brain disorder (54%) or mental illness (52 percent). Just 39% have heard Autism referred to as a nervous system disorder.

"The misperception of what autism is and is not is especially detrimental to treating it in schools," Torres said. "Without neurologists on hand, teachers and aides may not know how to cope with the somatic and sensory-motor issues that we have measured in research settings."

More than eight in 10 respondents said they support the federal government providing financial assistance for individuals with autism and their families.

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