LEWISBURG - Dr. Thomas Challman didn't have to think long for an answer when he was asked the significance of establishing an autism and developmental medicine center in Lewisburg.

"The kids in this region deserve it," the Geisinger Health Systems neurodevelopmental pediatrics doctor said Wednesday afternoon at the Campus Theatre.

His words were spoken during a break in a symposium on advancements in autism research and treatment to observe Autism Awareness Month and to celebrate the opening of the Geisinger-Bucknell Autism and Developmental Medicine Center.

Challman said children with developmental disorders, such as autism, and their parents will no longer have to travel to Philadelphia or New York City for diagnosis and treatment of certain ailments.

"By providing this service here, we've been able to bring in the best clinicians and researchers to be here. Because of the unique combinations we have here, including affiliation with Bucknell University and Geisinger Health System, we think we're building something here that really rivals everything else," he said.

Latest research

The three-hour symposium, which was attended by more than 270 individuals, featured expert presentations of the latest in the field of autism research and treatment by Dr. Wendy Chung, of Columbia University and the Simons Foundation; Dr. Robert Schultz, of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Dr. Brenda Finucane, of the Autism and Developmental Medicine Institute at Geisinger.

Autism, as described by the National Library of Medicine, is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.

Often, those with autism are less likely to react to faces than they are to objects, or become experts in things rather than people, said Schultz.

For example, he said he knows a child with autism who can determine the day on which a person's birthday will fall in any given year 30,000 years out with 98 percent accuracy; it takes the child less than two seconds to do so.

He said people with autism are usually unable to "perform the emotional 'song and dance' we have with other people."

Grand opening today

The symposium comes in advance of the grand opening of the Geisinger-Bucknell Autism and Developmental Center, the first location of Geisinger's Autism and Developmental Medicine Institute.

Challman said the main reason they gathered Wednesday was to celebrate the unique center that allows for a larger number of children to be treated without a long waiting time.

"It's hard for kids to get access to some of the services. We're improving the delivery. It's a marriage between the treatment and delivery of treatment. It's all in one place," he said. "We can only do that if we deliver the best clinical care and if we're studying the conditions to determine what the best approaches are. "

The center will be an integrated program of clinical care, research and education that Geisinger officials plan to make a national model for implementing guidelines for early diagnosis, medication management and treatment options for children with developmental disorders.

The joint effort of Bucknell and Geisinger will bring together the hospital's neurodevelopmental pediatric specialist, psychiatry/psychology, radiology, pediatric neurology and genomic medicine with the college's academic programs in neurosciences, psychology, education, mathematics and computer sciences. It will allow Geisinger clinicians and scientists to work with Bucknell's students and researchers.

Wenda Hartzell, an administrator for the program, said it's a huge step to have such a clinic in the area with a team of researchers and medical staff.

The grand opening of the center on Hamm Drive will take place at 3 p.m. today. Appointments for patients are being scheduled at the center beginning Monday.