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NJ: Zahorodny "expects the trend to continue"; 'We need to do something'

June 18, 2021, NJ.com: More N.J. kids are being diagnosed with autism. That will likely strain schools https://www.nj.com/news/2021/06/more-nj-kids-are-being-diagnosed-with-autism-that-will-likely-strain-schools.html

…The rate was much higher in some districts. In the Toms River Regional School District, the autism rate was more than 7%, the highest in the state, the research shows. Newark’s rate was about 5%. NorthJersey.com was the first to publish the findings. Walter Zahorodny, the researcher who conducted the study, said larger communities — Toms River being the largest suburban school district in the state — could see higher rates because their school districts have better resources for kids with autism…. The New Jersey Department of Education did not answer specific questions about its plans to address this growing need. In an emailed statement, spokesman Shaheed Morris said, “The NJDOE and its sister agencies have also made a variety of resources available to support families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”… But as autism cases rise — Zahorodny expects the trend to continue — the state Department of Education and school districts will have to figure out how to meet the complex and unique needs of more kids. Buchanan said districts in the state are generally equipped to handle the majority of kids with autism who do not have intellectual disabilities, but that those who do require more care and resources. She also said the ability of districts to meet educational needs varies wildly…. Zahorodny said his research has long indicated that New Jersey has the highest prevalence of autism in the U.S. But he said the state likely doesn’t have a significantly higher autism rate than other densely populated areas of the country. New Jersey is just better at identifying cases. In fact, he added that the autism rate across the country is probably more like New Jersey’s 3.6% and less like the CDC’s national average of 1.9%. “The rate in New Jersey is based on our ability to identify true cases, based on true quality information from educational and clinical sources,” Zahorodny said. “In reality, I suspect that the rate of autism is higher in places with lower estimates. That’s an underestimate of autism prevalence.” Statistics from the state Department of Education show that just 1.7% of students — 23,369 students in total — were classified as having autism in 2019, meaning there could be thousands of kids not getting the education they require. Regardless of the precise autism numbers, Zahorodny said his research makes one thing clear. “The alarming signal is that we need to do something ... pay attention and consider this a real phenomenon and make plans to serve the children,” he said. Eileen Shaklee said she feels the state’s system does well when kids with autism are young, but starts to falter as they get older. “It seems to me once they start aging out of elementary and they’re not cute anymore” they don’t get the services they need, she said. “We have a huge problem on our hands when these kids get older.”