A mature network of advocacy organizations, and access to a greater number of children's records, play a role in New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation autism rate of 1 in 34 children.

Despite growing awareness of the developmental disorder, research out of Rutgers University claims autism's reach is much greater than current figures suggest.

The study, published in the journal Autism Research, finds one-fourth of children with autism spectrum disorder are not being diagnosed. Researchers analyzed the education and medical records of hundreds of thousands of children across several states, including New Jersey, to determine how many showed symptoms of the disorder but were not clinically diagnosed or receiving services.

"This research just underscores the need for more resources," said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey.

The adults in children lives, she added, need to have a better understanding of the signs of the disorder, and not chalk up differences as "someone being difficult or someone being weird or someone being awkward."

"Some of these symptoms are actually symptoms of a neurological disorder that can be thoroughly assessed and treated," Buchanan said.

Of the study's 25% that were not diagnosed, most were black or Hispanic, according to co-author Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

"There many be various reasons for the disparity, from communication or cultural barriers between minority parents and physicians to anxiety about the complicated diagnostic process and fear of stigma," Zahorodny said.

Screening all children for autism could help reduce the racial disparities in diagnosis, he said. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children be screened for autism spectrum disorder at 18 and 24 months, along with regular surveillance of their development.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 59 8-year-olds have been diagnosed with autism nationwide. Buchanan said the Garden State has a much richer data set for each child, from which experts can ascertain if a child meets the diagnostic criteria. She said the state also has a greater share of people who are better informed about the disorder, both in the community and in the medical field.

According to the CDC, caregivers should be alert to certain red flags that could be signs of autism.

Children on the spectrum might not:

  • Respond to their name by their first birthday
  • Point at objects to show interest by 14 months
  • Play pretend by 18 months

Other possible signs:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Delayed speech and language skills
  • Excessively repeating words or phrases
  • Giving unrelated answers to questions
  • Having obsessive interests
  • Having trouble understanding other people's feelings or expressing their own
  • Flapping their hands, rocking their body, spinning in circles
  • Having unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

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