In 2007, New Jersey was identified as having the highest incidence of diagnosed autism in the United States. No one is sure why, says Sara Lee Kessler, reporter/writer/producer for the documentary “Decoding Autism.”
“Is it just that we are better at looking for signs and symptoms? Is it due to the expansion of diagnostic criteria? Or is it because we are the No. 1 Superfund cleanup site in the nation?”
Families of autistic children tend to flock to New Jersey, which mandates schooling for people ages 3 to 21 on the autism disorder spectrum. This is another factor in the high number of autistic children living in the state.
However, autism is very much a national phenomenon. More children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder this year than with childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and pediatric AIDS combined. It affects an average of 1 in 70 boys and 1 in 315 girls.
The autism spectrum includes classic autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and Rett syndrome. Each may be caused by something different, produce different symptoms, and need a different kind of treatment.
More than a dozen genetic causes are already known, accounting for 15 or 20 percent of cases. It is likely that genetics and environment both come into play.
“Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger,” says one mother in “Decoding Autism.” Pollution and age of parents may be relevant, but nobody knows for sure.
Typically, autistic children start showing symptoms between 12 and 24 months; screenings should be performed by the pediatrician at 18 and 24 months because autism is diagnosed solely through observation.
Affected children often begin losing whatever language skills they had and tend to look at other people’s mouths rather than their eyes. They typically do not respond to their names. Two other common symptoms are hand-flapping and toe-walking. Up to 30 percent of autistic children develop seizures.
The heartening news is that if autistic children are put into an intensive behavioral program by the age of 5, almost 50 percent will return to a public school setting, most of them at grade level.
“Ignore the well-meaning grandmother who says, ‘Don’t worry about Adam not talking; your father didn’t talk until he was 3.’ If you suspect anything is wrong, get it checked out,” warns Kessler. “You have to go for a diagnosis and early intervention to lessen the severity.”
Click on the “Decoding Autism” icon at www.njn.net to find “fast facts,” an autism quiz, a resources page, and additional information.