New Jersey has the highest rate of autism of any state in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control — but advocates say that's in part because we screen for it more.

“One in 41 8-year-olds have autism here in New Jersey,” said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director or Autism New Jersey. Autism affects a person’s ability to socialize with other people, and it gives people a restricted range of behaviors, interests and activities.

Buchanan said there are a number of reasons why New Jersey’s autism rates are so high.


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“They can pretty easily be explained by the way the research is done and the reports that the researchers had access to,” she said. “Here in New Jersey we have access to both educational and health records, so if you expand the pool of kids that you’re screening, you’re going to find more kids.”

But there’s another reason.

“The definition of the spectrum has been expanded since those earlier prevalent studies, so now individuals with more mild social disabilities are included in that definition,” she said.

Buchanan pointed out autism is four times more common in boys than in girls.

“Sometimes it’s under-diagnosed in girls because the symptoms may manifest differently or present differently,” she said.

Signs of autism

Buchanan explained most young children can share their experiences socially, paying attention to the people and experiences at the same time, "so if you’re playing outside in the backyard and a loud helicopter goes overhead they’ll point to it, maybe enjoy it. They’re not just looking at that helicopter, they’re making it a social experience.

"Sometimes we don’t see that with children with autism.”

She said other signs a child could be autistic include “not imitating other people, not engaging in pretend play, and not having that reciprocity in conversation.”

“Typically young kids are very engaged. They’re looking at your face, they’re making eye contact, they’re smiling, they’re playing peek-a-boo, they’re doing all sorts of things to get your attention, and children with autism sometimes don’t do that.”

Courtesy Autism NJ
Courtesy Autism NJ

What causes autism?

“There’s a very strong scientific consensus that it is genetic, not necessarily hereditary, because there can be spontaneous changes in genetic material,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said the research into environmental factors is just at the beginning stages, "but so far there’s been no smoking gun identified.”

She also noted in most cases, children do not grow out of their autism.

“Sometimes there is some spontaneous improvement, but for the most part, if you have autism you have it for your entire life," he said.

She said out not everything you hear and read about autism is true — "both theories about the cause and what are effective interventions. A quick Google search will yield many different hits, some of which are credible, some of which are not.”

Buchanan stressed the supposed link between vaccines and autism is not credible at all. In fact, it has been proven to be completely and thoroughly false.

“Autism can be very stressful on a family and it can be very stressful on a marriage, but the good news here is that many individuals, parents and siblings are strengthened because of the disability and they have more resilience, and their marriage will last a very long time.”

Tomorrow we look at the importance of early intervention.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at

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