Autism Investigator: New Definition of Autism Will ‘Muddy the Waters’

April 2, 2012 | Health Care
Walter Zahorodny of UMDNJ said the higher rates can't all be explained by increased awareness. He also worries about the changing definition of autism.

A new study has found that rates of autism have increased among children. Autism Study Investigator Walter Zahorodny, of UMDNJ, called it “a health crisis” because of the number of children and families affected. He sat down with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider to discuss and explain the new findings.

Zahorodny said that increased awareness has led to more diagnoses, but he believes more is at play. “In my opinion, if we had better awareness, we’d see incremental improvement over four or five years,” he said. “Five percent, 10 percent, but not a dramatic increase like we see.”

The increases have been across the board, according to Zahorodny, affecting children of every race, ethnicity and gender. It also runs the gamut of the autism spectrum.

“To comment on the argument that we’re only picking up on the borderline or marginally affected children, that’s really not true,” Zahorodny said. “From our data, it’s clear that approximately 80 percent of the cases are children with autistic disorder, which is the more severe type of autism.”

Researchers have said the definition of autism will be changing, which worries Zahorodny. “It’ll muddy the waters in my opinion,” he said. “We’ve had a coherent definition of autism spectrum disorders since 1994. When you make a big change in definitions, that’s going to cause a lot of ambiguity about how many true cases there are.”

Zahorodny said he hopes diagnosed children won’t suffer. “But if the disorder is defined down, it’s going to exclude some children that are currently considered autistic and get services,” he said.

Zahorodny said he’s encouraged by number and quality of people working on the disorders. “I think there will be breakthroughs along the way,” he said.