Recent reports that New Jersey’s autism rates have risen dramatically and reached “epidemic proportions” has elicited disagreement among researchers.
Some suggest that environmental factors have caused the State’s rate of new autism cases to rise. Some have suggested that the alleged increase is a result of childhood vaccines, while others have asserted that it may be air quality or some other unknown factor.
However, there are some who suggest that the rise in autism cases is a fallacy. The new numbers, they point out, are a result of increased awareness of the disorder and a practice of combining many different disorders and “lumping” them together within the “autism spectrum”.
Regardless of whether the disorder is truly rising or not, however, it is clear that New Jersey has a high rate of children and adults with a disorder (or series of disorders) that impact on their lives and creates a condition under which they cannot live independently and require a great deal of support. Parent groups, such as Deborah Christiana Wertalik’s “Putting the Pieces Together” are working round the clock to provide stimulus activities that will help children who have the syndrome to develop the requisite skills that lead to a successful adulthood.
Parents and families are overwhelmed by the impact of having a son, daughter or sibling with such a disability. It may be safe to say that Autism Spectrum Disorder not only impacts on, and perhaps controls, the individual with the disability, but greatly controls the lives of family members. One researcher has pointed out to this writer that, despite ongoing studies, we know little more about the cause of the disorder than we did forty years ago.
Medical practitioners have yet to agree on what the disorder actually is, and whether the term represents one type of disability or a series of disparate conditions. Recent publications have suggested that one in 49 New Jersey children have autism. If accurate, this is an alarming rate that will require school officials, pubic policy people, legislators, and medical practitioners to work together to engage in radical planning for the future. That planning must not only include service delivery for those who have the condition, but planning for the impact that possible future increases in prevalence will have on communities and society as a whole.
Children with autism will someday become adults. Their need for support will not suddenly disappear when they reach adulthood. Preparation must begin now.
Dr. Salvatore Pizzuro, a Disability Policy Specialist, holds a doctorate in Developmental Disabilities from Columbia University and an advanced degree in Disability Law from New York Law School.