The New Autism Diagnostic Criteria: What Will Be The Impact?

The impact of the newly proposed diagnostic criteria for autism have been debated this year and the conversation continues with a new study published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry (you can read it here). The key issue has been the extent to which the new criteria will lead to fewer diagnoses of autism. Here’s a summary of where things stand right now. 

1) The new criteria lumps all disorders along the autism spectrum together under one diagnosis. This means, for example, that separate criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome would no longer be in place. Whenever diagnostic lumping takes place, the criteria become less specific, in order to take in a large range of symptoms. A result of this is that clinicians making diagnoses have to use even more professional insight and discretion to determine if a diagnosis is warranted because the criteria are more general than before.

2) To account for the wide range of symptom expression that can be observed within this broad autism spectrum, there will be a severity scale, ranging from mild to severe.

3) A key concern has been that the new diagnostic criteria will result in fewer diagnoses of autism in the future. Some have claimed that this effect will be profound. The study cited above suggests that less than 10% of current cases would no longer meet diagnostic criteria for autism.

Now this is where the fuzziness in the debate comes into play. Whenever a child is not diagnosed with a condition, then the availability of services gets reduced. Do these 10% of kids still need services? Will they get a diagnosis that will permit access to services? This is really the crux of the question. Furthermore, there are suggestions that this study was a “best-case scenario” because it focused on more clear-cut cases and used expert clinicians with lots of experience (see, for example, the New York Times report on this). The implication is that once the new diagnostic criteria are used out in the real world, with a range of clinicians in terms of experience, the number of cases that will not be diagnosed may be higher than the 10% reported in the study.

Earlier this year, I asked an experienced clinician – Dr. Gil Tippy – to offer his take on the matter. He suggested that the rates of autism will not be severely affected if experienced clinicians are doing the assessments. His greatest concern was that the use of the new severity criteria would substantially decrease the number of kids who could receive services for their condition. His argument was that insurance companies could deny coverage to those who were given a “lower” severity rating of mild impairment – even though that “mild impairment” requires intervention. You can read the entire blog post here if you are interested in the details.

So I think there are 2 take-home messages right now:

1) The rate of diagnosis will go down – but it’s not clear to what degree.

2) The impact of the severity criteria on the ability of families to secure coverage needs to be considered in more detail, as this could result in impediments to secure treatment.

If you read Dr. Tippy’s suggestions noted above, he offers advice on how to advocate to ensure that kids are not denied services in the future. This is especially important as early screening and early intervention continue to be the most effective strategies for accelerating the development of youth diagnosed with autism. To that end, it’s important that all parents know the early signs of autism that would indicate the need for early screening – if you haven’t seen it before, here is a prior blog post that lists 7 key early signs that should never be ignored.

Autism symbol via Shutterstock.com

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