NJ’s education, legislation & community programs are superior for children with autism

In the CDC’s December 2021 report, it was indicated that one in 44 youth nationwide live with autism; in New Jersey, the rate is one in 35. New Jersey’s rates are consistently greater than the national average — in fact, the report said New Jersey has the second highest rate of children with autism in the country.

As a professional working in special education, I found this telling.

These numbers ask why the Garden State is a desirable place to live for children with autism and their families. Is it possible that educators and doctors in other states are not as keenly able to name autism when it manifests in youth?

By contrast, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office recently shared that one in 150 New York children live with autism, statistics at odds with the CDC’s findings. Discovering autism at a young age takes precision and care — qualities that lead thousands of families to call New Jersey home and utilize our superior school systems, legislation, and programs that afford those with autism better lives.

Many choose to raise children with autism in New Jersey for practical reasons.

Governmentally, school districts in our state are responsible for the education of a student with autism from ages three to 21. This may be the case in other states, but few present as many options: the nonprofit Autism New Jersey assembled a directory of “New Jersey schools serving children with autism spectrum disorders.” With New Jersey’s 120+ approved private receiving schools alone, plus the many in-district programs for those on the spectrum, the choices for parents are very broad.

In addition, New Jersey is ranked in the top five states in the country for special education. “New Jersey offers such a wide range of services,” said Candi, a parent who moved into NJ several years ago. “For instance, when we moved to NJ, we never dreamed our son could go to a sleepaway camp, but due to the multitude of services offered, he can and successfully. There are so many more opportunities than we ever thought possible here.”

Because of the prevalence of autism, this has led to more and more of our schools being equipped with the educators and programs designed to serve the specific needs of students with autism or multiple disabilities. As another option to a home-district program, a child may enter a private receiving school, where a referral will help place a student in the education structure they need at the expense of the public school.

Other states are not as generous with their policies.

In my years of experience in special education, I’ve worked with several families who have relocated to New Jersey to reap the benefits of the services being offered. Florida, for example, offers “exceptional student education” only if students meet all of the listed criteria (including “impairment in social interaction,” “verbal or nonverbal language skills,” and “restricted patterns of behavior”), showing that there is a higher bar to receive the education that is needed.

In New Jersey, our educators have set the bar for how to engage students with autism, by providing highly customized programs that are not “cookie-cutter” in approach. In addition, many schools are adopting transition programs — bridging opportunities that give students with autism real-life experience outside the classroom. Some of this occurs at school via coursework (such as cooking classes), and some take place off campus (employing students at local businesses to more fluidly integrate them into the workforce).

This endeavor serves multiple purposes: for one, it offers students with autism hands-on experiences to pave the road toward an independent life post-graduation. More profoundly, it also offers the community a better chance to know and love those they may not normally collaborate with; through these mutually beneficial transitional programs, the community gets to meet, work alongside, and learn from these highly gifted, passionate, and amazing students.

So where does this leave our students?

We are fortunate to have a rich number of local universities (William Patterson, Montclair, Seton Hall, TCNJ, Rowan, and Kean, amongst myriad others) that offer prized programs in special education for up-and-coming teachers.

This ensures that the outward current of educators meets the inward flow of students who need them. And as our state welcomes more students with autism, it invites our schools and government to continually heighten standards, better understanding how to create equitable laws and education systems that can be a beacon for other states.

New Jersey has a long history of offering its youth the best education in the country, and those offered to children with autism is — and should continue to be — just as sterling.

Julie Mower, M.A.Ed., Executive Director, The Phoenix Center, Nutley, NJ

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: New Jersey is desirable place to live for children with autism