What should you do right away if you find out your child is on the autism spectrum?

The percentage of kids diagnosed with autism in New Jersey is higher than any other state in the nation. A new study from the CDC shows that the rate of new cases has grown significantly in recent years as well.

“Right now the prevalence rate in New Jersey is 1 in 34 children,” said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey. So why is our autism rate higher than any other part of the country?

Buchanan believes Jersey kids are not different than youngsters in other states, however “here in New Jersey we have a mature network of advocacy organizations like Autism New Jersey continually pushing autism awareness, getting parents connected to information and services.”

Buchanan said when a family first gets an autism diagnosis for a child, the family should immediately reach out to an advocacy organization.

“We can help the parents understand what their child’s needs are and help them get a game plan," she said.

She pointed out when something doesn’t seem right, if a young child is not hitting those normal markers for playing and communication, getting assessment as quickly as possible is important so parents can be connected with early intervention and other services.

Buchanan said once a comprehensive diagnosis is done, “the very next step and sometimes even more important is an actual baseline of the child’s skills -- so doing a behavioral assessment. What adaptive behavior do they have? How are they talking? How are they communicating? How are they getting along with other kids? And then looking at the specific deficits, and then starting to treat those.”

She pointed out people with autism often have average or above-average intelligence. Some others may have very low IQs or profound intellectual disabilities. They range in their interests and motivations. Some seek out social interaction, and some shun it.

“Individuals with autism may seem more introverted, but it’s just a matter of them sometimes not knowing how to interact," Buchanan said.

She said New Jersey school districts have an assortment of programs that are designed to meet the needs of students with autism, but problems may still exist.

“It varies district to district, school to school, teacher to teacher. Sometimes it’s just the rapport between the teacher or the para-professional and the student can make or break a student’s school year," Buchanan said.

She said New Jersey does a better job than most other states in offering services for those with autism, however “that said, I think it’s still a fraction of what the community truly needs.”

Beyond school, “I think there’s a lot more recreational opportunities now that are designed to engage children with special needs, and this is incredibly important along the autism spectrum because there are many children with autism who need that one-on-one support.”

Buchanan stressed parents of children with autism face many stressful twists and turns in life and they must learn to take care of themselves.

“This is a journey, and more often it turns into a marathon than a series of sprints, and so self-care is extremely important to be able to be there for your son or daughter in the long run," she said.

For more information you can call the Autism New Jersey Helpline, which is 1-800-4-AUTISM.