Study suggests major changes in new proposed autism definition

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Advocates and people with autism were already concerned about upcoming changes to the definition of autism, scheduled for 2013, in the widely used American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

This is a graphic with green, red, and yellow puzzle pieces with the word autism in blue in the middle.

Autism Definition Reviewed

Those concerns were amplified by a new study, released January 19 by the APA,
that shows that the the proposed changes would “end the surge of new diagnoses” of autism, according to an article in the New York Times.

“Our fear is that we are going to take a big step backward,” said Lori Shery, president of the Asperger Syndrome Education Network, in the article. “If clinicians say, ‘These kids don’t fit the criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis,’ they are not going to get the supports and services they need, and they’re going to experience failure.”

The proposed changes are part of the creation of the 5th edition of the manuel. The manual’s addition of Asperger syndrome as part of its 4th edition, in 1994, is credited by many as a key factor in the large increase in people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders during the past couple of decades.

The proposed definition would consolidate the three main autism spectrum disorders – autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder  – into one definition, eliminating Asperger’s and P.D.D. from the manual.

To qualify as having autism currently, an individual must exhibit six or more of 12 specific behaviors. Under the tightened proposed definition, three of the behaviors must involve social interaction and communication skills, while two must involve repetitive behaviors.

The study released January 19 looked at 372 children and adults among the “highest functioning” individuals diagnosed under one of the three orders, finding that just 45 percent of these individuals would qualify under the new definition.

The study found that about a quarter of people with under the classic, pre-1994, definition of autism would no longer qualify. About 75 percent of people with Asperger syndrome would not qualify, nor would about 85 percent of people with P.D.D.