What Does the New Definition of Autism Mean For Your Child?

The definition of autism may be changing soon. If the expected changes occur, many children may no longer be considered autistic. What's behind these changes and how could they impact families?

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What's Changing?

The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.) is scheduled to be finalized in December of this year and released in May of 2013. When it comes to defining, treating and pursuing research in mental disorders, the D.S.M. is the go-to book. Recently, the news came out that autism was slated for a potentially major revision, sparking widespread concern.

Currently, a person can be considered autistic by exhibiting six or more behaviors from a list of 12. These behaviors include struggles developing peer relationships, delayed speech development and an inflexible adherence to non-essential rituals or routines.

The new definition, which is still undergoing review, would require a person to exhibit at least three social interaction and communication deficiencies and at least two repetitive behaviors. Furthermore, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (P.D.D.-N.O.S.) would be folded into autism spectrum disorder. Asperger's and P.D.D.-N.O.S. are currently separate but closely related to autism.

Why a Change?

Many consider the current definition of autism to be too vague. In recent years, the number of people diagnosed with autism, Asperger's or P.D.D.-N.O.S. has skyrocketed. Some estimates suggest that one out of every 100 children is diagnosed with one of these disorders. By narrowing the definition, the surge would likely be stopped.

A main goal with the new D.S.M. is to define autism with as much biological accuracy as possible. The changes would clarify what autism is and help doctors more consistently diagnosis it. It would also focus autism away from those who are considered particularly high functioning. One study of the proposed new definition used data on 372 high functioning autistic children and adults; it found that only 45% of them would continue to be considered autistic if the changes take effect.

What the Changes Could Mean for Your Child

There is a debate raging about what a narrower definition of autism would mean for children. One major concern is what impact the change could have on special education services. Families who rely upon state-funded services to help children with pronounced social and learning problems could lose this support. Also, those who rely on medications to handle the disorder could be affected. None of this is clear, however.

A broader concern is how the change will affect those accustomed to identifying as autistic. Many families have found comfort in communities, whether in person or online, for those diagnosed with autism. A new definition could create conflict among those no longer considered autistic. Hopefully, those who have found coping mechanisms for their disorder through social networks will continue to find solace and support there, regardless of how the autism definition may change.

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