OP-ED: New Data Compels Action on Autism
1 in every 94 New Jersey children analyzed in a recent federally-funded study is afflicted with autism. This number—based on data released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Feb. 8 at a conference I hosted on Capitol Hill—indicates that the widespread and growing problem of autism is affecting more and more families in the Garden State. Perhaps even more alarming, when you break it down, the data indicates that 1 in every 60 boys studied has a form of autism.
Just ten years ago, the national autism rate was thought to be 1 in every 500 children. As a result of this groundbreaking study, it is now believed that 1 out of every 150 children born in the United States suffers from an autism spectrum disorder.
For many years, I have felt that published national autism rates did not accurately recognize the size and scope of the problem. As a result, I wrote legislation included in Title I of the “Children’s Health Act of 2000” (P.L. 106-310) that authorized the CDC to award grants and cooperative agreements for the collection, analysis and reporting of data on autism and other pervasive developmental disabilities. It was in conjunction with these authorities that the CDC data released last week—the most comprehensive to date—was collected.
Similarly, over the years, I have believed that the federal government’s commitment to autism was not reflective of the magnitude of the problem. I worked with my colleagues to increase autism funding by nearly 10 times the amount it was in the mid-1990’s. For instance, in 1995 the National Institute of Health (NIH) invested about $10.5 million into autism research. The agency now spends over $100 million annually on autism research. Autism funding has increased from $287,000 in 1995 to approximately $15 million annually at the CDC in recent years.
Yet the new CDC data—gathered from studies in 14 states during 2000 and 2002—shows that the funding increases of the last ten years have not kept pace with the problem and simply are not enough. Armed with this information, we must properly respond and intensify our efforts at the federal, state and local levels to better treat and one day prevent autism.
At the briefing, Dr. Walter Zahorodny—the principal researcher for the study of autism prevalence in New Jersey—revealed the results of research conducted on close to 30,000 eight year-old children in Union, Essex, Hudson and Ocean Counties—a portion of the latter of which is included in the my Congressional district.
Dr. Zahorodny’s research documented that the highest autism prevalence rates in the nation—1 in 94 children according to 2002 numbers and 1 in 101 children according to data from 2000—are found in northern New Jersey. Researchers say these numbers are reflective of demographics throughout the entire state.
In my 27 years in Congress, I have learned that you cannot effectuate change without the proper understanding of the problem. Up until now, we lacked a clear picture of the prevalence of autism. That is no longer the case. Now that we understand the gravity of the situation, we are compelled to act.
One way to provide immediate help to autistic children and their families is to ensure that the programs authorized in the recently enacted “Combating Autism Act of 2005” (P.L. 109-318) are fully funded. As founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Coalition on Autism Research and Education (C.A.R.E.), I strongly supported this comprehensive law which requires the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to expand, intensify and coordinate autism-related research and to conduct an agency-wide study of research centers of excellence. It also facilitates the creation of state-level agencies to serve as clearinghouses for public information and authorizes programs to improve early screening, diagnosis, intervention and treatment for autism. It is imperative that we do not shortchange these programs.
And since there is no evidence to answer why New Jersey’s rates are the highest in the nation, we must also work to find the causes for autism, which I believe includes significant study into possible environmental triggers.
We cannot sit idle and allow another generation to be silenced by autism. The CDC data shows we run that risk unless we move aggressively to combat the disease. This information—as troubling as it is—is necessary so that we can move to reverse these alarming trends.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of Hamilton is in his 27th year representing the 4th Congressional District of New Jersey.