Preschoolers in New Jersey have the highest rates of autism in the U.S., according to a report released Thursday by researchers from Rutgers University. Published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the report found that 1 in 5 New Jersey children had been diagnosed with autism by their fourth birthday. According to a USA Today report on the study, those children were more likely to have been diagnosed due to exhibiting moderate to severe symptoms of autism, while other children are diagnosed after entering public school.
The cause of the dramatic spike in autism rates remains ambiguous. Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who directed the New Jersey section of the study, said he was at a loss to explain the skyrocketing percentage of autism diagnoses in New Jersey and elsewhere.
“The explosive rate of autism is impossible to ignore,” Zaharodny was quote as saying by USA Today. “There's no letup. I really don't understand why the rate is going up in this way."
While genetic mutations and birth-related risks, such as premature birth, are contributing factors, Zaharodny believes unknown environmental factors may be at play in the increasing prevalence of autism. He noted that the autism rate climbed 43% between 2010 and 2014, and that one in twenty-three four year old boys in New Jersey are now diagnosed with autism.
Researchers in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin, and New Jersey screened the health records of 71,000 children to gain insight into autism rates (in three states, education records were also examined). Ultimately, over 1,200 children were identified as having the condition. The New Jersey data found that boys in that state were 3 ½ times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism. Researchers found that white children were slightly more likely to be diagnosed, though autism diagnoses among white, black, and Hispanic children increased at generally the same rate. The study also found that the age at which children are first diagnosed has stayed relatively the same in New Jersey over the past fifteen years.
“Despite our greater awareness, we are not effective yet in early detection,” Zaharodny was quoted as saying. “Our goal should be systematic, universal screening."