Care at Children's

What is ASD?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), appears as:

  • Problems with back-and-forth social communication and social interactions
  • Limited, repeated patterns of behavior, interests or activities

ASD symptoms often appear in childhood, and they may greatly affect the way children function in their everyday lives. When it comes to being diagnosed:

  • Children with severe ASD may be diagnosed as early as 12- to 18-months-old.
  • Children with milder ASD may not show major symptoms until early in their teen years - around the time they start middle school.

The most recent estimates by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2014) show that one in 68 American children have been diagnosed with ASD. ASD has risen steadily over the past few decades.

A number of factors have most likely played a part in this increase. These include greater awareness of ASD and how ASD is diagnosed.

It’s not clear what causes ASD. Most scientists agree there’s not just one cause, and both genes and environment play a role. Although there are claims that vaccines can cause ASD, at this time there’s no link showing that a child who gets a vaccine will have ASD.

How is ASD treated?


A number of treatments work well with individuals diagnosed with ASD. A 2014 review of common behavioral treatments for ASD found that 27 focused intervention practices meet the standards of evidence-based treatment (Wong et al., 2014). Those include:

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

ABA and group-based social skills counseling are the gold-standard treatments for ASD. One-on-one therapy such as CBT is best to target comorbid symptoms (disorders that occur along with the main health condition) in children with ASD, such as anxiety or depression.

ABA, family therapy or one-on-one therapy with the primary caregiver, are best to target troublesome behavior such as:

  • Being aggressive
  • Refusing to follow rules


Although psychiatric medications are often prescribed for children with ASD, they’re only used to treat disorders that are taking place along with the ASD. At this time, there’s no drug that treats the core problems of ASD.

The two medications that are approved by the FDA to treat irritability and aggression in children and adults with ASD are:

  • Risperidone (Risperdal)
  • Aripiprazole (Abilify)

Programs to help treat ASD

Penn State Children’s Hospital has special 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 youths with ASD who are moving into adulthood
  • Outpatient therapy for people with ASD who also have anxiety
  • Managing medicines for people with ASD for the treatment of anxiety, depression, sleep problems, aggression or other behavior problems
  • Psychological (mental health) assessments for children and teens with ASD

Penn State Children’s Hospital has a number of specialized research programs that offer treatment for ASD. These include:

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

Other Programs that offer treatment services for children with ASD at Penn State Health:

  • Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute (PPI) Child and Adolescent Outpatient Services, 717-782-6493 (all PPI services housed at PPI Campus on 2501 N 3rd St Harrisburg, PA)
  • Counseling and medication treatments for children and adolescents with ASD

Penn State Children's Hospital Pediatric Rehabilitation and Development

This 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
  • Neuropsychological testing (tasks that measure a mental function that’s linked to a brain’s pathway)
  • Educational testing
  • Educational consultation

Groups, Classes & Support

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

Learn more about pediatric support groups offered at Penn State Children’s Hospital.

Research & Clinical Trials

View other clinical trials Penn State Children's Hospital has to offer.

Symptoms, Diagnosis & Outlook


Most parents of ASD children suspect that something is wrong by the time the child is 18 months old. Children with ASD often have problems with:

  • Pretend play
  • Social interactions
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication

Some children seem normal before age 1 or 2. They then suddenly lose language or social skills they already had.

Symptoms can vary from moderate to severe.

Causes & Risk Factors

The exact cause of ASD isn't known. It's likely a number of factors that lead to ASD. Research shows that genes may be involved since ASD runs in some families. Certain medicines taken during pregnancy may also lead to ASD in the child.

Other causes have been suspected, but not proven. Some scientists believe that damage to a part of the brain, called the amygdala, may be involved. Others are looking at whether a virus may trigger symptoms.

Some parents have heard that vaccines may cause ASD. But studies have found no link between vaccines and ASD. All expert medical and government groups state that there is no link between vaccines and ASD.

The increase in children with ASD may be due to better diagnosis and newer definitions of ASD. Autism spectrum disorder now includes syndromes that used to be regarded as separate disorders:

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

We can help

For more information or to make an appointment for Outpatient

717-531-8338 (Hershey)


717-782-6493 (Harrisburg)