The American Psychiatric Association is reviewing its definition of autism and related disorders like Asperger syndrome, and preliminary reports suggest that the new, narrower definition could remove or withhold diagnoses from high-functioning patients, leading to limited health, educational, and behavioral services at a time when school special education budgets are pushed to the limit. One analysis found that as many as 45 percent of high-functioning autistic patients would no longer qualify under the new diagnostic criteria.
The psychiatrists' association is wrestling with one of the most agonizing questions in mental health — where to draw the line between unusual and abnormal — and its decisions are sure to be wrenching for some families. At a time when school budgets for special education are stretched, the new diagnosis could herald more pitched battles. Tens of thousands of people receive state-backed services to help offset the disorders' disabling effects, which include sometimes severe learning and social problems, and the diagnosis is in many ways central to their lives. Close networks of parents have bonded over common experiences with children; and the children, too, may grow to find a sense of their own identity in their struggle with the disorder.
At least a million children and adults have a diagnosis of autism or a related disorder, like Asperger syndrome or "pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified," also known as P.D.D.-N.O.S. People with Asperger's or P.D.D.-N.O.S. endure some of the same social struggles as those with autism but do not meet the definition for the full-blown version. The proposed change would consolidate all three diagnoses under one category, autism spectrum disorder, eliminating Asperger syndrome and P.D.D.-N.O.S. from the manual. Under the current criteria, a person can qualify for the diagnosis by exhibiting 6 or more of 12 behaviors; under the proposed definition, the person would have to exhibit 3 deficits in social interaction and communication and at least 2 repetitive behaviors, a much narrower menu.
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