The Medical Minute: Services for adults with autism ‘a pressing priority'

In the early 1990s, autism awareness kicked into high gear, and Pennsylvania responded by developing programs and services to meet the needs of newly diagnosed children.

Now, those children have become young adults, and the medical community faces its next challenge -- how to serve adults with autism.

Earlier this month, the Autism Services, Education, Resources and Training Collaborative (ASERT) published the latest Pennsylvania Autism Census Update, which shows that the number of Pennsylvania residents with autism has more than doubled from the last census, done five years ago.

“It’s going to keep growing,” said Dr. Michael Murray, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Division of Autism Services at Penn State Hershey. “Even though the numbers have increased dramatically, it’s important to remember these are just reflective of people with autism who interact with state services. It’s still not representing everyone in PA who has an autism spectrum diagnosis.”

Murray says many times, people think of autism as a childhood or adolescent disorder, when in reality, those diagnosed with autism will spend the majority of their lives as adults with the condition.

He says the census numbers and projected trends should create a sense of urgency to get funding for and create programming and services for adults with autism.

“Right now, we don’t have the capacity to serve them,” Murray said. “These numbers make us see where we need to be spending money and developing resources. It’s important for planning.”

Adults with autism often face challenges accessing services because of difficulty with communication and/or social interaction, Murray said. Community leaders, medical professionals, educators and first responders are among those who will need to be familiar with the condition and learn how to serve this growing segment of the population.

Right now, only two programs in the state serve adults with autism, according to Murray. One is the Adult Community Autism Program, which is available in Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin and Lancaster counties. That program serves 200 individuals and is at capacity. It is an integrated program to meet health, behavioral health and employment needs and coordinate services.

The Adult Autism Waiver is a funding stream available to access services that focus mostly on behavioral health needs and community living and serves just more than 400 people.

“We’re making some very good initial steps, but when you consider that there are about 600 people being served of the 10,000 individuals out there, I don’t think we’re ready,” Murray said. “This is a pressing priority.”

He is doing work through the ASERT Collaborative to find ways to better support the needs of adults on the autism spectrum through a social skills program. “That is probably the No. 1 barrier for accessing services and having the kind of relationships they are looking to have,” he says. “Their lives go on, and they continue to need support.”

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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Last Updated November 20, 2014