State’s First Summit on Autism Aims to Broaden Definition

By Briana Vannozzi

A broader definition of autism, it’s a change researchers agree was needed.

“These individuals with autism have many different different reasons why they have this common final pathway to developmental issues and behavioral problems,” said Dr. Mark Mintz, President and CEO for the Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health.

And these doctors and families want to know why. This statewide summit on the autism spectrum disorder — held at Montclair State University — brought together some of the state’s leading minds to present the latest research.

“The problem with autism is you can make a diagnosis for autism without regard to what causes it from a biological perspective. So our research is really trying to understand the biological causes and contributions to autism spectrum disorders,” Mintz said.

Genetic sequences and DNA patterns were a big topic today. Researchers say they’ve found that the features of autism share many genetic similarities with other neurological disorders.

“If we approach the behaviors more as a neurological disorder, than the treatments might be total different,” Mintz said.

“In 2014 when the CDC issued their report, they found that nationally the prevalence rates for autism were one in 88. In New Jersey the prevelancy is one in 45, and for boys in New Jersey one in 29,” said Dr. Gerard Costa.

Costa, with Montclair State University’s Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health which hosted the event, says the future lies in getting to the root cause instead of treating symptoms.

“It’s really focusing just on altering behavior. It’s on really focusing on understanding each child’s individual profile,” Dr. Costa said.

New jersey has given about $35 million in grants to fund autism research projects. One focused on possible links between autism and certain plastics used in everyday items that touch foods.

Doctor Yvette Janvier’s work focused on better screening of children in minority neighborhoods.

“The folks in those communities have told us they have trouble with the questionnaire type formats that are currently available for autism screenings, so I created a tool that’s pictures for the typical red flags for early autism,” she said.

One common school of thought over New Jersey’s high rate of autism has linked it with our success with early detection, but the research presented here shows that theory may not stand on its own.

“I actually think that what we call autism, however it use to be called, has changed. Has grown” Dr. Costa said.

Families, who must stay ever vigilant on the topic, say even with medical advances– a diagnosis is daunting. Their quest for the best resources is never ending.

“As he changes you have to shift the supports and services that you’re getting now, meaning throughout their life ,” said mother Sharon Webber.

“It gives you a little bit of hope and what’s going on in the laboratory can eventually then be used to maybe benefit my son, or if  it can’t benefit my son, maybe another family and another child won’t have to develop Autism,” said mother Lisa Huguenin.