Disorder Characterized By Social Communication Difficulty

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 54 children have been diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States. The number has continued to rise steadily over the past few decades, most likely due to the greater awareness of ASD and how ASD is diagnosed.

ASD can initially surface in children with:

  • Difficulty during back-and-forth social communication and social interaction
  • Limited and repeated patterns of behavior, interests or activities

At Penn State Health Children’s Hospital, our experts are here to help. Children with severe ASD may be diagnosed as early as 12 to 18 months old, while children with milder ASD might not show significant symptoms until their early teen years – typically middle school age.

There is not a clear-cut reason for why ASD occurs in children. Research is ongoing, but scientists agree that both genetics and environment play a role. All expert medical and government groups state that there is no scientific data to link childhood vaccines and ASD.

Symptoms, Diagnosis and Outlook

Many times, parents notice their child has ASD symptoms before the child is 18 months old. Children with ASD often have problems with pretend play and social interactions, as well as verbal and nonverbal communication. Symptoms can range from mild to very severe. Sometimes children seem normal until after their first birthday when they begin to lose language and social skills that they already mastered.

If you suspect your child is displaying ASD symptoms, call the experts at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital Pediatric Behavior and Development. Our team includes:

  • Doctors
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Nurse care managers
  • Education liaison
  • Speech therapists
  • Pediatric Neuropsychologists
  • Post-doctoral students

Parents are asked to fill out an intake packet that discusses your child’s health history, behavior concerns and family history. We will perform a comprehensive evaluation of your child and identify if your child has ASD.

The exact cause of ASD isn’t known, but doctors believe it’s a combination of factors. Research shows that ASD runs in families, so there is a genetic link. Certain medicines taken during pregnancy can also increase the likelihood that a child will have ASD.

Other causes have been suspected but not yet proven. Some scientists believe that damage to a part of the brain, called the amygdala, may be involved. Other scientists are investigating if a virus could potentially trigger ASD symptoms.

The increase in children with ASD can be attributed to better diagnosis and newer definitions of ASD. Autism spectrum disorder now includes syndromes that used to be considered separate disorders:

  • Autistic disorder
  • Asperger syndrome
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder
  • Pervasive developmental disorder

With proper supportive care like medication and therapy in place, children with ASD can grow up to live fulfilling and healthy lives.

Why Choose Penn State Health Children's Hospital for Care

Comprehensive ASD Treatment

Penn State Health Children’s Hospital has comprehensive programs that treat autism spectrum disorder. These include:

  • Social skills groups for teens and young adults with ASD
  • A novel clinical program designed specifically to improve outcomes for ASD youths who are moving into adulthood
  • Outpatient therapy for ASD patients with anxiety
  • Medicine management for our ASD patients for the treatment of anxiety, depression, sleep problems, aggression or other behavior problems
  • Psychological (mental health) assessments for children and teens with ASD

Specialized ASD Research Programs

The dedicated team at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital offers several research programs specializing ASD treatment. These options include:

  • Group therapy for social skills (early to middle adolescence)
  • Group therapy for social skills (late adolescence to early adulthood)
  • Individualized program for adolescents to increase successful transition to adulthood

Additionally, the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute (PPI) Child and Adolescent Outpatient Services in Harrisburg offers counseling and ASD medication treatment\\nt.

Resources for Parents with Younger ASD Patients

If your child is diagnosed with ASD when they are young, our team offers comprehensive rehabilitation and development resources. The Penn State Health Children’s Hospital Pediatric Rehabilitation and Development program treats:

  • Young children with ASD, especially those with speech and language delays or speech apraxia (problems saying sounds, syllables and words)
  • Children with developmental delays, learning disabilities or other neurological (brain or nervous system) problems

Services include testing to diagnose ASD, as well as neuropsychological and educational testing and educational consulting.

Detailed Medication Management

Although psychiatric medications are often prescribed for children with ASD, they are only used to treat disorders that are also present. At this time, there are no medications that treat the core problems of ASD.  

If your child has irritability and aggression, our experts might recommend the FDA-approved medications:

  • Risperidone (Risperdal)
  • Aripiprazole (Abilify)

Evidence-Based Treatments

The team at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital will evaluate your child to determine which psychotherapy treatment path is the best fit. Successful evidence-based treatment options for ASD patients include:

  • Applied behavioral analysis (ABA)
  • Social skills training
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

ABA and group-based social skills counseling are the gold-standard treatments for ASD. One-on-one therapy options like CBT help target ASD with additional conditions like anxiety or depression. ABA, family therapy or individual therapy with the primary caregiver are also helpful for targeting troublesome behavior like aggressiveness or refusal to follow the rules.

Support Groups

Support groups provide children and their families an opportunity to connect with others in similar situations. Learn more about the support groups offered at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital.

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