In New Jersey, you’re more likely to come across a student diagnosed with autism than in any other state in the nation.
A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control, which used research from Rutgers University, found a 43% increase in the prevalence of autism in 4-year-olds in the state from 2010 to 2014, and that one in 35 students in New Jersey has been diagnosed.
It’s a reflection of New Jersey’s ability to diagnose earlier, which leads to better outcomes for students, said Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who directed New Jersey’s portion of the study.
But the increase in diagnosis affects the education system financially and students’ access to quality services.
The notion that vaccines might cause autism was refuted nine years ago, when a British medical panel concluded in 2010 that Andrew Wakefield, the doctor with undisclosed financial interests in making such claims, had acted with "callous disregard" in conducting his research.
Liz Parlett-Butcher’s oldest son, 11, is diagnosed and her youngest, 5, is under evaluation for autism.
Parlett-Butcher, of Egg Harbor Township, knows that in districts like hers, which has been underfunded for many years by the state while enrollment grew rapidly, finding the money for the services needed is tough. She does believe students in special education bear the brunt of those cuts.
So Parlett-Butcher has become an advocate for parents like herself who have children with autism in local school districts. She pushes for services like speech and language, and even contacted then Gov. Chris Christie on the topic during his regular appearances on NJ101.5 FM radio.
“There’s a special place in my heart that just feels for them,” she said. “I try to help them wherever I can.”
Parlett-Butcher said she is in favor of any plans to increase funding for special education, including one by Senate President Steve Sweeney, who proposed having the state fund costly extraordinary special education services in his Path to Progress report that came out last summer.
Sweeney’s proposal would relieve the cost burdens on local districts.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said the high rates of diagnosis mean the cost of education increases, so Sweeney’s proposal could help.
“That cost to date has been borne disproportionately by municipalities,” Callahan Harrison said.
That means parents will “shop around” for a district that can offer the services necessary for their child. Having the state step in to cover the costs of special education would mean children, no matter where they live, would have access to quality special education services.
“As a fairness proposition, it seems to make sense to have these costs be borne by the state and have quality services available for all children regardless of where they live,” Callahan Harrison said.
Jamie Moscony, assistant superintendent of the Cape May County Special Services School District, is the former director of curriculum at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology and a mother to a child diagnosed with autism.
Moscony said she isn’t surprised by the study’s findings. She said at the Special Services School, the number of children on the autism spectrum continues to grow, as do the services provided.
In the past few years, the district has added four classes for students with autism.
Autism spectrum disorder rates in New Jersey 4-year-olds rose by 43 percent over a four-year…
“We project that number to increase based on the trends,” she said.
For students not in special services schools, funding is an issue, Moscony said.
“Especially in Cape May County, it’s very difficult for our sending districts, especially since they’re going to be losing millions of dollars (from school funding reform),” she said. “How they’re going to budget for and provide these types of services, it’s going to be very challenging for them.”
Zahorodny said the study’s findings show “no likely let up in the burden or responsibility of school districts for more and more children that are going to come into the district needing educational services.”
“If you want to really grasp the weight or the burden of autism, look at any district’s autism count and double it,” he said.
Zahorodny said families in New Jersey have an advantage over those in other states.
“Our education system is aware and has been aware of autism for a long time and has had the ability to develop both special schools and district-level programs,” he said, although nothing is perfect.
“In New Jersey, it’s not like every family gets exactly what’s needed, but odds are much better in New Jersey that a child with autism will have a better chance of getting a complete repertoire of educational services and help,” Zahorodny said.