Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children

The Autism Program at Children’s Specialized Hospital is dedicated to improving the lives of children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and their families by providing comprehensive evaluations, treatment, community education and research. As the largest regional provider of services for children with ASD, we are focused on early identification and treatment so kids can reach their full potential. And, since our highly qualified staff is committed to family-centered care, professionals and families work together as partners in making sure that children get the services they need.

Additionally, Children’s Specialized Hospital is at the forefront of research for treatment and diagnosis of autism. The hospital is conducting various clinical studies related to improving diagnosis and treatment for children, adolescents and families affected by ASD.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism is a complex developmental disability that is characterized by a combination of the following:

  • impaired socialization
  • impaired communication
  • restricted/repetitive behaviors or interests

Autism is called a spectrum disorder because it is defined by a certain set of behaviors and affects individuals differently and by varying degrees. Even though people may be diagnosed with an ASD, there is a wide variety of skills, with each child having his/her own strengths and difficulties.

Two individuals with the same diagnosis can act completely differently from one another; no two people with ASD will have the same symptoms. Many of the behaviors that are exhibited also interfere with learning and result in a need for specialized, consistent attention and structure.

Behavioral characteristics of ASD may include:

  • Delay or lack of verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • Impairment of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye to eye gaze, facial expression, body posture and gestures to regulate social interaction
  • Preference to be alone, difficulty interacting/socializing with others
  • Lack of social and/or emotional reciprocity
  • Impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain conversation
  • Lack of "play" or make believe play
  • Obsessive attachment to objects, persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
  • Spinning, rocking, hand flapping or twisting and/or other self stimulating behavior

It is estimated that that approximately one in 100 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder. ASD occurs in every racial, ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic group. It is four times more likely to occur in boys.

What Causes Autism?

Currently, there is not a known single cause for autism. Researchers are investigating genetics, environmental factors and the interaction of genetics and environment.

little boy covering ears

How Is Autism Diagnosed?

Autism is usually diagnosed during the early years of childhood. Diagnosis is based upon the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which is the main diagnostic reference for mental health disorders in the United States. The diagnosis is typically based on clinical observation, caregiver report and history. Certain structured assessments and evaluations, including developmental evaluations, that pull for characteristics typically associated with autism may assist in making the diagnosis.

Presently, there is no specific laboratory test for ASD. However, several behavioral and developmental evaluation and assessment tools may provide data helpful in making the clinical diagnosis of an ASD.

Examples of diagnostic tools sometimes used are:

  • Autism Diagnosis Interview - Revised (ADI-R™) is a comprehensive, structured interview conducted with the caregiver that focuses on 3 functional domains: language/communication, reciprocal social interactions and behavior.
  • Autism Diagnosis Observation Schedule (ADOS™) consists of standard, semi-structured activities that allow the examiner to observe the occurrence (or non occurrence) of behaviors that have been identified as important to the diagnosis of autism or other pervasive developmental disorders.
  • Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT™) is a parent completed questionnaire that consists of 23 yes/no items.
  • Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers and Young Children (STAT™) is an interactive tool that assesses key social and communicative behaviors including imitation, play, requesting, and directing attention.

Additional Assessments

    Children’s Specialized Hospital offers evaluations for children, with or without an autism diagnosis, that can be scheduled separately. After evaluations are complete, parents are presented with a written report with recommendations. Additional evaluation include:

    • Neurodevelopmental. Evaluations address a child's developmental and learning needs as well as his or her functional abilities.

    • Psychiatry. Evaluates children and adolescents with possible mental health or social-emotional difficulties. Assessments include focus on home, school and the community.

    • Physiatry. Diagnostic assessment and treatment planning for children and adolescents with neuromuscular and musculoskeletal conditions and/or injuries.

    • Speech/language. Assessments of all components of speech and language. Evaluations can assess challenges with feeding including motor skill difficulties and behavioral concerns.

    • Occupational therapy. Evaluation of fine motor and functional skills, self-care skills, sensory-motor development, oral motor functioning, and visual-perceptual development.

    • Physical therapy. Assesses child’s gross motor development, mobility, strength, flexibility, endurance, balance, coordination and motor-planning.

    • Neuropsychological. Assessments are based on a child’s difficulties in learning, emotional control, brain injury or trauma, or other developmental conditions which affect the brain. Evaluations include such areas as general intellect, learning and memory, language development, visual-perceptual skills, fine-motor coordination, and emotional functioning.

    • Educational. Evaluations focus on a child’s learning and memory.

    • Nutrition. Screening and assessment of a child’s nutritional status.

    • Comprehensive feeding. Treatment recommendations, referrals, and suggestions are formulated with the goal of establishing feeding patterns that can be maintained in the child's natural environment.

    • Augmentative communication. Evaluations for children who have oral and language deficits are performed to help determine an appropriate augmentative communication device that meets their unique needs.

    • Audiology. Assessments to determine hearing problems. Comprehensive diagnostic testing.

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