Autism spectrum disorder affects more children in New Jersey than in any other state: 1 in 34, compared to 1 in 59 nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If that isn’t alarming enough, the numbers are growing steadily. Only two years ago, the statistic in New Jersey was 1 in 41.
Of course, this neurobiological disorder doesn’t affect only children. ASD is a lifelong disability characterized by difficulty with social communication and interaction as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.
New Jersey now has 57,000 children and 70,000 adults with autism. It is an issue affecting every county, municipality, and neighborhood in the state.
This Saturday afternoon, in recognition of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Autism New Jersey’s executive director, Dr. Suzanne Buchanan, will speak at Temple Israel of Ridgewood. (See box .)
Autism New Jersey is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with ASD through information, education and training, public policy, and awareness.
“Rising numbers of children with ASD need services and support now and will require significant resources as they grow into adolescence and adulthood,” Dr. Buchanan, a licensed psychologist, said. New Jersey has been recognized as a leader in autism services for a long time, she emphasized. But it was one of the last states to adopt Early and Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment, a Medicaid benefit that ensures access to comprehensive high-quality health benefits for people under age 21. And autism treatment is not yet included in Medicaid/NJ FamilyCare coverage; that is expected to happen by next spring.
Dr. Buchanan and her colleagues recently led a successful advocacy initiative to roll back policies that would have decreased the availability of housing for adults with autism.
There is more to be done.
“Autism New Jersey leads advocacy efforts to increase the availability of funding of services for children and adults with autism,” Dr. Buchanan said. “We work closely with advocates, service providers, insurance carriers, and state officials to ensure that medically necessary behavioral services are available to those in need.”
Early intervention is key, she said. She urges parents to get an assessment as quickly as possible if a young child is not hitting normal markers for play and communication.
Although scientists haven’t yet pinpointed the cause — or more likely, causes — of autism, research suggests that ASD is a genetic disorder that may be triggered by environmental factors.
What we do know is that ASD is about four times more common among boys than girls, and occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. It can be diagnosed in children as young as 2, and it commonly co-occurs with other developmental, psychiatric, neurologic, chromosomal, and genetic diagnoses.
“When a family first gets an autism diagnosis for a child, the family should immediately reach out to Autism New Jersey’s helpline,” Dr. Buchanan said. That number is 800-4-AUTISM.
“We can help the parents understand what their child’s needs are and help them get a game plan,” she continued. “Our understanding and experienced staff has in-depth knowledge of New Jersey resources and service systems. These areas of expertise include early intervention, special education, state-funded services, adult services, insurance coverage, and much more. We can also provide individualized needs assessments and match those needs with the appropriate resources in your local area.”
Autism New Jersey explains that people with ASD typically have difficulty building relationships, using language, regulating their emotions, and understanding others’ points of view. They may suffer from seizure disorders, gastrointestinal problems, hypersensitivity to sensory input, and difficulties with eating, sleeping, and toileting.
The term “spectrum” highlights how the specific social and behavioral challenges vary for each affected person and can change over the course of his or her life. Some people with ASD have difficulty with daily activities and require constant supervision to stay safe, while others have few noticeable impairments. Only 30 percent of people with ASD have an intellectual disability.
Paul Aronsohn, a former mayor of Ridgewood and now the state’s first Ombudsman for Individuals with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities and Their Families, will introduce Dr. Buchanan at her Temple Israel presentation.
“I work closely with Dr. Buchanan,” Mr. Aronsohn said. “She and her organization are my go-to resources for autism, and they’re phenomenal.
“It’s important for those who have autism in their family, and those who don’t, to understand the implications,” he added.
As ombudsman, Mr. Aronsohn’s role “is to be a troubleshooter for individuals and families. I want to make the system more accessible and user-friendly and to make sure the voices of people with disabilities and their families are heard.”
Mr. Aronsohn is a member of Temple Israel’s tikkun olam committee, which is sponsoring the event. Elaine Silverstein and Bob Rohrberger co-chair the committee. “We are a joint committee of members of Temple Israel and our sister Reconstructionist congregation, RCBI,” Ms. Silverstein said.
“We sponsor a variety of programs concerning such topics as disability, immigration, gun safety legislation, and the environment, in addition to running food and clothing drives, feeding the homeless, and more.”
What: “The Who, What, Where, Why and How of Autism” with guest speaker Dr. Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism NJ
Where: Temple Israel & JCC, 4765 Grove Street, Ridgewood
When: Saturday, Nov. 23, 12:30 p.m., after Shabbat morning services
How much: Open to the public free of charge