Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affect 1 in 68 children, according to the latest reports from the Center for Disease Control’s website. Males are five times as likely to develop an ASD when compared to females. ASD is a developmental disability that causes significant impairment in social, communication, and behavioral domains of functioning. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders often think, learn, and problem-solve differently from most other people, and their abilities can range from gifted to severely challenged. The diagnosis of ASD now encompasses several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome.
Individuals diagnosed with an ASD might have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all, avoid eye contact and want to be alone, have trouble understanding people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings, and appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds. In addition, individuals with ASD often prefer not to be cuddled, or only cuddle when they want to, show interest in other people but not know how to talk, play or relate to them, or have trouble expressing their wants and needs in typical ways. Individuals with ASD often show repetitive behaviors, such as repeating words or phrases said to them, repeat actions over and over again, and have trouble adapting when a routine changes. They may have unusual reactions to the way that things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound and may not play “pretend” play games (such as pretending to be a superhero or teacher).
While we do not know the cause of ASD, researchers have determined that there are likely many causes. There appears to be several different factors that make a child more likely to have ASD, such as biological, environmental, and genetic risk factors. Children who have a sibling with ASD are at a higher risk of also having ASD (CDC, 2015). In addition, children born to older parents are at a greater risk for ASD. Some research has also provided evidence for a critical period for developing ASD, which occurs before, during and immediately after birth.
Diagnostic and treatment centers for children and their families with ASD are hard to come by, especially in rural Pennsylvania. In Ridgway, PA, families have the support of the Dickinson Center’s Possibilities Autism Center. Possibilities services children and their families from 11 counties in the state of Pennsylvania, with most families coming from Elk, Clearfield, Jefferson, Cameron, McKean, and Potter counties. Since 2010, Possibilities has served over 400 children and provided 200+ diagnostic evaluations, with approximately half receiving an ASD diagnosis.
Possibilities services children with ASD from 2-18 years of age. Their reputation was built on the quality of diagnostic evaluations, which include the use of cognitive, adaptive, and behavioral assessments as well as the gold standard in autism assessment, the ADOS-2. The licensed psychologist integrates information from various sources, such as parents, behavioral health workers, teachers, and other agencies with whom the families work. Once a diagnosis is made, the psychologist helps to coordinate services and make referrals for local resources that would be beneficial for the child and his or her family. In addition to the evaluations, families are able to complete individual, family, and group therapies at the center.
In addition, the center also runs 8 week social skills groups, designed not only for children who have ASD, but other children who have social skill deficits. In the weekly sessions, various topics are covered, such as understanding nonverbal cues, maintaining conversations, cooperative play skills, and how to handle bullies. During the last 15 minutes, parents are brought in to discuss the session topics and to address ways that they can reinforce skills at home.
One of the most engaging aspects of the Possibilities program is the multisensory environment in which the services are offered. A multisensory environment helps children process and respond to information. Individuals with ASD are often unable to properly process sensory stimulation, being either hypo- or hyper-sensitive to incoming stimuli. A multi-sensory environment creates an environment that allows individuals an opportunity to control, manipulate, intensify or reduce stimulation. Several pieces of play equipment are available onsite and are often utilized by the center’s occupational therapist, who completes sensory integration therapy. Sensory integration therapy, as practiced by occupational therapists, uses play activities in ways designed to change how the brain reacts to touch, sound, sight and movement. Recent research has shown that the use of sensory integration therapy is effective in helping to ease such sensory difficulties in ways that improve daily function.
In the past, to help sustain the program, Possibilities has relied on the support of their generous donors, local agencies, and through the program’s annual charity ball. This year, Possibilities has decided to take a different approach and is reaching out to its supporters through a mailing campaign in lieu of an annual charity ball. “The financial support of the donors has helped to make the program exactly what it is today, and we would not be here without their help,” quoted Possibilities licensed psychologist, Amanda Straub, PsyD. “We hope that we can continue to serve our families in the future, but will need the ongoing support of our community.”
Should you be interested in learning more about the Possibilities Autism Program and their line of services or making a donation, contact the center at 814.776.2145. Information is also available on their web listing.