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Autism bill take lead on policy, funding

The Bergen Record



A historic package of bills heading for the Legislature would propel New Jersey to the forefront of the autism crisis by adding millions of dollars for research and a slew of services lasting a lifetime.
The half-dozen measures, to be introduced in the Assembly as early as next week, would form the state's most cohesive autism policy ever. The legislation comes at a critical time: On Thursday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that New Jersey has the nation's highest autism rate, with 1 in 94 children affected.

"I'm like everyone else in New Jersey in that I know so many people who have had family members, particularly children, diagnosed with autism," said Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts, D-Camden, who spearheaded the legislation. "We may be unclear in terms of why we have ranked with the highest documented cases of any state -- it could be we're doing a better job detecting and reporting -- but at the very least it's a wake-up call for action."

Autism is a neurological condition whose cause is unknown, although both heredity and environmental factors are suspected. It has no cure.

People with autism can lack communication, learning and social interaction skills. Some have symptoms so mild that they are not diagnosed until adulthood -- if ever -- while others go a lifetime focusing on redundant tasks, unable to speak.

The CDC based its findings on 2002 data from 14 states. The overall rate in those states was one in 150 children -- surpassing the earlier baseline of one in 166.

Researchers said they were not certain why the rate appears to be worsening. It is possible that more individuals could be developing autism, but it's also possible that doctors are just better at diagnosing the disorder.

About 14,000 New Jerseyans ages 3 to 21 have autism, the study found. Boys here are three to four times more likely than girls to have autism.

Roberts said that work on the bills began in early fall, when The Record's "In Autism's Grip" series examined the state's rising rate. In light of the CDC findings last week, he said he intends to introduce some of the bills during an Assembly session Feb. 22.

"We want to get them introduced and passed within the next several months," he said.

One part of the legislation would add $4 million in research and clinical funding grants under the Governor's Council on Autism. Beyond that, Roberts could not estimate what the legislation could cost -- or how much taxpayers would have to pay for it. Some of the funds could come from federal grants, but the bulk would have to be added to the state budget.

Similar versions of the Assembly proposals have come before the Legislature in the past, never to move beyond committee. Roberts said there is a new urgency this time.

"The CDC report really underscored the importance of New Jersey being on this issue," he said.

Autism advocates welcomed the proposals, particularly those for adults.

"For many years, we've been leaders in early identification. Now we're looking beyond that," said Paul Potito, executive director of the Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community.

Linda Walder Fiddle, whose Ridgewood-based Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation funds autism programs, called the legislation "dramatic and positive."

"I am pleased that they are recognizing the lifespan issues relating to autism," she said. "It also seems as though there are good educational aspects to these bills, such as emergency training to let the EMS workers know more about autism and more effectively treat individuals in those situations."