Spectrum Disorder That Affects How the Brain Develops

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong condition that often appears in the first three years of life. ASD affects how the brain develops and creates numerous challenges that affect social skills, interaction and communication.

Autism has risen steadily over the past few decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about one in 68 children in the U.S. has this disorder. This increase is due in part to greater awareness of ASD and also how it is diagnosed.

It’s not clear what causes ASD. Most scientists agree that it has more than one cause and both genes and environment play a role. Although there are claims that vaccines can cause ASD, no scientific studies have linked ASD and vaccines.

Symptoms, Diagnosis and Outlook

People with ASD have trouble with social interactions and communication. Their interests may be minimal. They may also show repeated patterns of behavior and activities. ASD symptoms often start in early childhood, but may also appear later.

For example:

  • Children with severe ASD may be diagnosed as early as 12 to 18 months of age.
  • Children with milder ASD may not show major symptoms until early in their teen years.
  • Some people with ASD are not diagnosed until they are adults. They have often been diagnosed with other mental health conditions first.

Common symptoms include:

  • A sing-song or flat tone of voice
  • A tendency to avoid or ignore other people
  • Difficulty following or participating in a conversation with others
  • Excessive talking about different subjects without the ability to gauge interest levels in others
  • Facial expressions, gestures and movements that don’t correspond to what’s being said
  • Inconsistent or infrequent eye contact
  • Making unusual movements, including arm flapping, rocking from side to side and or twirling

Autism is typically diagnosed based on its signs and symptoms. A multidisciplinary team will conduct a neurological, language and cognitive assessment to evaluate your child for ASD.

People with autism can lead active, full lives. For many, symptoms improve with age and treatment.

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Why Choose Penn State Health for Care

Special Programs Address All Aspects of Autism

Penn State Health has a wide range of special programs that treat autism, including:

  • A medication management program to treat anxiety, depression, sleep issues, aggression or other behavioral problems that can occur along with ASD
  • A program designed to help people with ASD who are moving into adulthood
  • Assessments for people who think they may have ASD, but have not yet been diagnosed
  • Mental health assessments
  • Outpatient therapy for people with ASD who also have anxiety or depression
  • Social skills groups for teens and young adults with ASD

Penn State Health also offers specialized ASD research programs, including:

  • An individualized program for adolescents to help them transition to adulthood
  • Group therapy for social skills from early to middle adolescence
  • Group therapy for social skills from late adolescence to early adulthood

Personalized Treatment Plans

A number of treatments work well for people who have ASD. The care team at Penn State Health develops a personalized plan that focuses on your needs, abilities and goals. Our treatment options include:

  • Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) – encourages positive behaviors and discourages negative ones
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – targets symptoms that can occur along with ASD, such as anxiety or depression
  • Social skills training groups – help children with ASD learn social skills from their peers who do not have this condition

At this time, there is no drug that treats the core problems of ASD. However, some medicines can help people manage the disorders that often occur with it. Two drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat irritability and aggression in children and adults with ASD. They are:

  • Aripiprazole (Abilify)
  • Risperidone (Risperdal)

Comprehensive Care from Skilled Clinicians

We’ve been recognized by U.S. News and World Report as a high-performing specialty for consecutive years. Our medical team is consistently recognized nationally through Best Doctors in America and America’s Top Doctors awards. Our specialists also participate in worldwide conferences and speaking engagements in countries including India, Korea, Germany, Japan and others.

Support Groups

Support groups provide an opportunity to share your feelings and connect with other patients and caregivers who are experiencing similar struggles.

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