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New Jersey gives $4M boost to autism research

Author: The Record
Written On: Thu, 13 Sep 2007

The Bergen Record

Families coping with autism will get more help and support from New Jersey, including a statewide registry of cases, a task force for autistic adults and more support for autistic infants and toddlers. Autism research in New Jersey is also getting a $4 million boost through the extension of a fund that collects $1 from every motor vehicle fine levied in the state.

"Finally, they do not have to sit in their home alone," said Linda Walder Fiddle, a Ridgewood resident and the executive director of The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation.

Governor Corzine signed into law six measures Wednesday that target autism and one that addresses Asperger's syndrome -- a neurological disorder similar to autism -- while visiting the Eden Institute in West Windsor, Mercer County.

The new laws extend funding for research into a cause and possible treatments, establish an autism registry similar to those used to track other medical conditions such as cancer, and create the Asperger's Syndrome Pilot Initiative to provide more services and education.

Another new law provides for better training of teachers. An early intervention program to make screening, education and family support readily available is also being established.

A task force designed to help address the needs of autistic adults and their families will be created. The Governor's Council on Autism will also be reorganized.

The goal of the new laws, Corzine said, is to give families better help and more options. "We want to make sure that there are choices," he said.

Autism advocates are calling the state's effort a major first step.

"This is just an incredible day for the state of New Jersey," Fiddle said. "This is the apex of a lot of hard work and effort by the autism community."

The foundation Fiddle created and leads provides grants across the country for programs for autistic adults and adolescents. The organization is named after her son, Daniel, who had autism and died accidentally in 2000 at the age of 9.

"It's been a long time coming," said Linda Meyer, executive director of the Ewing-based New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported this year that one in 94 children has autism in New Jersey and that about one in 150 is afflicted nationwide.

Researchers do not know what causes autism, but suspect a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Symptoms of autism can range from barely noticeable to debilitating, and include impaired communication skills, social awkwardness and inappropriate and repetitive behavior. The disorder is often diagnosed by age 3.

Although autism has no known cure, intensive and expensive therapies show some promise in lessening and even reversing some of its symptoms. Behavioral, physical, occupational and speech therapies are used to treat the disorder.

The symptoms of Asperger's syndrome are often similar to those on the autistic spectrum, but without the cognitive and communication deficits.

Assemblywoman Joan Voss, D-Fort Lee, sponsored the measure establishing the pilot program for Asperger's syndrome, a condition from which her son suffers.

"This is very, very personal to me," Voss said. "I spent many, many years running around trying to find an answer."

The bills signed into law Wednesday first cleared the Assembly in March, with Speaker Joseph J. Roberts, D-Camden, pushing the bipartisan initiative. "We're trying to provide that parent with a lifeline," Roberts said. "There is now a ray of hope."

The Senate passed the bills in May.