April is Autism Acceptance Month

In the United States, approximately 1 in 44 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. Early detection is closely associated with better outcomes, so during Autism Acceptance Month, we're taking a closer look at ASD.

Why is it called a spectrum?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges.

"Autism is called a spectrum disorder because the autism experience is different for everyone," said Allen Dsouza, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Penn Highlands Behavioral Services. "ASD affects individuals to varying degrees, with a range of impairment levels and the support needed to be successful in day-to-day activities."

Autism spectrum disorder now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

Chantel Liberty and a student work
Chantel Liberty, a teacher at the Regional Center for Autism, and a student work together to create a collage.
therapy session with Cali Shafter
Three students work hard during a speech therapy session with Cali Shafter, the Speech and Language Pathologist.

What are the symptoms of ASD?
Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and last throughout a person's life. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, also called the DSM-5, defines autism as persistent differences in communication, interpersonal relationships and social interaction across different environments, as well as restricted and repetitive behaviors.

"Early signs of autism include delays in spoken language development, minimal eye contact, repetitive language or behaviors, insistence on routines, difficulty in initiating social contact or maintaining peer relationships, obsessive attachment to objects and avoidance of physical contact," said Dr. Dsouza. "If parents notice any of these signs, they should discuss it with their pediatrician."

What are the symptoms of Asperger's?
Now part of the autism spectrum disorder, signs of what was previously diagnosed as Asperger syndrome generally appear later in a child's development than the signs of autism discussed above.

"Children diagnosed on the Asperger's side of the spectrum typically achieve developmental milestones, so parents may not notice the signs until the child is older," said Dr. Dsouza. "Those signs include a lack of awareness of social cues, difficulty empathizing with others, limited eye contact and problems maintaining back-and-forth conversations."

How is ASD diagnosed?

There is no medical or lab test that diagnoses ASD. Rather, your pediatrician will perform an assessment, and if your child shows developmental problems, they will refer you to a specialist for more tests.

"Early identification can make a huge difference in long-term development," said Dr. Dsouza. "The earlier we can make a diagnosis, the earlier we can start intervention therapies and education."

Are there treatments for ASD?
Because the autism experience is different for everyone, there is no standard treatment for ASD. Therapies and interventions are focused on minimizing the symptoms and maximizing an individual's abilities, and effective therapies are different for every individual.

"Treatments can benefit everyone with ASD, regardless of age. While early intervention is ideal, individuals of any age often improve their daily activities and abilities through structured and personalized programs and therapies," said Dr. Dsouza.

Penn Highlands Connellsville features the Regional Center for Autism, which is affiliated with Cleveland Clinic Children's Center for Autism. The Center offers state-of-the-art behavioral and educational services to individuals in a welcoming environment where the teachers and classroom behavior therapists use Applied Behavior Analysis. Applied Behavior Analysis is a proven treatment to help individuals with ASD. The Autism Center also provides Occupational, Physical, Speech, Visio, and Hearing therapies. Currently, there is no similar program in the region spanning West Virginia to Pittsburgh.

In addition, Penn Highlands Healthcare offers a variety of inpatient and outpatient behavioral health services to treat the unique mental health concerns of patients of all ages, including children ages 5 and up, adolescents, teens, adults and seniors. Learn more at www.phhealthcare.org/bhs.