UPMC To Create Autism Treatment Network With Donation

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The autism treatment site, created by UPMC, will be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania for autism patients.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) has received $250,000 in funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) Bureau of Autism Services to support the start-up of an Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) site, which will offer comprehensive diagnosis, treatment, care and counseling for children and teens with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

"The commitment of these funds by the Pennsylvania DPW to the new ATN site in Pittsburgh and the support of the Honorable Dennis M. O'Brien, Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, were vital to the choice of UPMC as an ATN site," noted Nancy J. Minshew, M.D., professor of psychiatry and neurology, and director of the NIH Autism Center of Excellence and Collaborative Program of Excellence at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC. "The funding was critical in demonstrating the support from the state for this effort to develop national evidence-based guidelines for the assessment and treatment of autism and for recognizing autism as a neurological disorder with medical complications."

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The Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network is a group of 15 hospitals and medical centers in the U.S. and Canada dedicated to improving medical care for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and to standardizing the care those individuals receive. The ATN's multi-disciplinary approach includes collaboration among specialists in areas including, but not limited to, neurology, developmental pediatrics, child psychiatry, psychology, gastroenterology, genetics, metabolic disorders and sleep disorders. The network aims to develop common clinical standards for medical care for individuals with ASD and to increase the pool of autism medical specialists through trainee mentorship and outreach to community-based physicians. As part of this effort, families receiving care at the sites can participate in a data registry that tracks children and adolescents receiving ongoing care. The information in the database is a crucial part of developing the evidence to create and substantiate clinical consensus standards.

The new Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network clinic will include evaluations for known genetic disorders and genetic metabolic disorders to identify children with autistic symptoms. There are approximately 100 such disorders that have been associated with a syndrome that resembles autism.

"It is important that clinical care for ASD not only reflect the most up-to-date standards for diagnosis and assessment that will guide intervention, but also that practitioners be on the alert for these underlying disorders that have their own specific treatments and inheritance implications," stressed Dr. Minshew.

The Pittsburgh site will be led by Dr. Minshew, in partnership with the program directors of a young child ASD clinic at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC directed by Cynthia Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and education; and the directors of the older child and teen ASD clinic at the University of Pittsburgh, Benjamin Handen, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and John McGonigle, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry.

Autism is a complex brain disorder that disrupts a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, often accompanied by extreme behavioral challenges. Like most non-acquired brain disorders, autism is a multi-organ system disorder. Sleep disorders, gastrointestinal dysfunction and seizures occur in 30 to 40 percent of individuals with ASD. Additional numbers can have genetic metabolic disorders. Detection and accurate diagnosis, though much improved, still vary widely by geographic area, socioeconomic status and ethnic origin. Currently, treatments help but fall considerably short of a cure.

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