The United Nations has declared today World Autism Awareness Day. A recent federal study shows a significant increase in the prevalence of autism, bringing the nation in line with what New Jersey has been reporting for years. Dr. Jill Harris, director of program development at Children’s Specialized Hospital, told NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor that the new survey confirms what many thought — that the prevalence rate throughout the country was about equal to the Garden State.
The latest survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was a phone survey and found about one out of 50 children have been diagnosed with having an autism spectrum disorder. “That is much more consistent with New Jersey’s most recent prevalence rates,” Harris said. “But it is still much higher than what had been shown in the past and in other states.”
The method of collecting data varies from previous studies. Harris explained that previous prevalence rates were based on reviews of health and school records.
“I think it confirms what we really suspected which is that probably throughout all of the states and probably throughout other countries as well the prevalence rate is probably equal. It was always a little confusing about why it was higher in New Jersey,” Harris said. “We thought that possibly it was because there might be increased awareness in New Jersey or more places where you can get a diagnosis. But now it’s suggesting that the prevalence is high nationwide and worldwide.”
While researchers believe there is equal prevalence of autism across all racial, ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic lines, Harris said statistics show there are disparities accessing diagnoses and services.
“That’s something that at Children’s Specialized Hospital we put a lot of emphasis in terms of looking at these traditionally under-served groups and seeing if we can improve access to services for this population,” Harris said.
Harris said she believes educators can play a role in diagnosing children. “One of the things that we’ve looked at is going into daycares or preschools — places where a lot of kids spend a lot of their time — and trying to educate the people who are working with those kids about what the early signs are for autism, what the red flags are,” she said. “So that if we could screen the kids where they are, in the community where they are, we think that we would be able to identify those kids that need services earlier and hook them up with effective services quicker.”
Some are worried that sequestration could impact the services offered for autism. Harris said while there is increased awareness about autism and increased services, more are needed.
“Even here in New Jersey where there is legislation for some insurance companies to cover applied behavioral analysis or ABA services,” Harris said. “Not all insurances cover that and indeed state Medicaid does not cover it. So when you ask if there are enough services, there aren’t enough services definitely not for adults and people as they age with autism. But also some of the services that are known to be highly effective don’t always have a payment source to cover the services.”
Adults with autism need additional services, according to Harris. “If you look at what people need, they need hopefully meaningful employment, they need a safe place to live, they need social opportunities, and that’s throughout the age span. And no, there definitely are not adequate services for adults,” she said.