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Toms River, NJ: One in 14 students with autism; "harbinger of rate all NJ districts will see soon"

June 15, 2021, Asbury Park Press: NJ's autism rate is still climbing. In one district, one in 14 third graders is affected

New Jersey's rate of autism among children has always been high, but some of the largest school districts — including Toms River, Newark, Jersey City and Elizabeth — have rates even higher than the state average. And in Toms River, the state's largest suburban school district, the autism rate is more than twice the state average, with one in 14 8-year-olds in the district on the autism spectrum, according to the first study to compare a cross-section of districts in the state. Toms River’s autism rate is likely a harbinger of the rate all New Jersey districts will see soon, the study’s co-author said. In nearly all the 74 districts studied, the research showed a steady increase over time in the rate of students with autism. “It feels like some kind of science fiction,” said Walter Zahorodny, co-author of the study and an associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, of the data he presents to educational and parent groups. To say that 7% of 8-year-olds in one school district — and 5% of 8-year-old boys statewide — have autism is shocking, he added, “but in reality, this is true. And it can’t be explained.” … New Jersey's ever-increasing number of children with autism has significant implications for the educational resources that will be needed in the future, since such students require smaller class sizes, intensive instruction, specially trained teachers and paraprofessional aides. And as adults, eventually they may need housing, job accommodations or financial support. Three of the state’s four largest public-school districts — Newark, Elizabeth and Jersey City — also had autism rates above the state average of 3.6%, the report said. The prevalence of autism in all 74 districts varied from zero to 10.8%. … The youngest students entering the school system “are really what’s driving our need to increase our program,” said Anna Kasper, the district’s supervisor of preschool and autism. The district has about 100 preschool students with autism who learn in self-contained classroom programs and about 35 in such programs in high school. … As monitoring continues in future years, “It’s very likely we will find even greater numbers of children with autism in what we consider underserved communities,” [Zahorodny] said. … “If only Toms River had the high rate, we would be concerned about some environmental or ecological risk factor pushing the rate, or the case-finding, upward in that town,” he said. But he said there’s no reason to suspect a toxin or some other exposure there is causing the higher rates. … New Jersey’s rate of autism has been the highest in nearly every biannual study conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control’s autism monitoring network since 2000. Last year’s report, based on 2016 data and released at the peak of the COVID pandemic, found that an average of one in 54 children at the 11 monitoring sites around the country was identified with autism. In New Jersey, however, the rate was one in 32. That high rate is explained in part by high levels of public awareness and better screening and recognition by educators and pediatricians. It’s likely that other states are underestimating the number of children with autism, experts say….


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