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Rutgers study reveals higher than average autism spectrum disorder prevalence in NJ communities

Researchers from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School conducted the study to determine the presence of autism spectrum disorder among New Jersey communities. – Photo by

The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in certain New Jersey communities is higher than the reported U.S. national average of two percent, with 1 in 5 school districts having an ASD prevalence between five and 10 percent, according to a recent Rutgers study

Rutgers researchers previously discovered that overall ASD prevalence in New Jersey was approximately one percent greater than the national average, The Daily Targum reported.

Josephine Shenouda, a co-author of the study and a project coordinator at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said the researchers analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network to determine ASD prevalence in a particular area.

She said the study looked at ASD prevalence among 8-year-olds enrolled in public schools within four counties, Essex, Hudson, Ocean and Union, and determined that Ocean County had the highest rate of the studied counties. The researchers also studied individual school districts and concluded that Toms River in Ocean County had a higher than average ASD prevalence of approximately seven percent. 

"It is possible that several reasons are related to higher than expected ASD estimates in Ocean County including, greater access to clinical and educational services and better identification of ASD cases with borderline to average intellectual ability," Shenouda said.

The disproportionately large ASD prevalence in Ocean County could also be linked to familial migration to the region due to its increased educational services, though this hypothesis was not tested by the study, she said.

She said the study found that school district size affected the estimation of ASD prevalence in an area, as larger school districts were better at ASD identification in children than smaller districts. Newark and Toms River, two of the largest school districts in the state, both had higher than average ASD prevalence, according to the study. 

Socioeconomic status (SES) also played a role in the study, as mid-SES school districts had higher rates of ASD prevalence than high-SES districts, which contradicts other current literature on the subject, Shenouda said. The study showed that race and ethnicity affected ASD identification and ASD prevalence as well.

“Overall, we found that Hispanic children were less likely to be identified than non-Hispanic white children,” she said. “Our findings underscore that disparities exist in the identification of ASD among Hispanic children.”

A previous Rutgers study concluded that 25 percent of children under 8 years of age with ASD go undiagnosed, with the majority of that percentage being Black or Hispanic, The Targum reported.

Factors like stigma, anxiety about the diagnosis process and lack of access to early intervention services can all contribute to the disproportionately low ASD identification rate among Black and Hispanic communities, according to the article. 

Shenouda said the study's findings are important in order to effectively allocate resources and services for children with ASD as well as to determine possible risk factors for ASD. She said that greater prevalence of the disorder in certain school districts such as Newark and Toms River point to a need for greater funding for ASD services in those areas. 

Additionally, she said that early screening for ASD among children ages 18 to 24 months should help close disparities in ASD identification, specifically because early intervention programs can help children with ASD improve abilities and receive proper care.

“It is important to understand local variation to plan and allocate services for children with ASD,” Shenouda said. “These variations in estimates could also reveal patterns for risk factors.”

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