Changes in Autism Diagnosis May Impact Fewer Than Feared

Earlier research had estimated that 45 percent or more of children currently on the "autism spectrum" would not qualify under a new definition now being refined by psychiatric researchers — a finding that generated widespread anxiety among parents who rely on state-financed services for their children. The new report, posted online Tuesday by The American Journal of Psychiatry, concluded that the number who would be excluded is closer to 10 percent.

The finding may soothe the anxieties of some parents, but will not likely settle the debate over the effect of the new diagnosis.

All sides agree that the proposed criteria are narrower and will likely result in fewer diagnoses of autism, but until doctors begin using the new definition widely, the predictions of its effect are just that: predictions.

The debate has simmered over the past year as an expert panel appointed by the American Psychiatric Association has updated its proposals for the association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, scheduled to take effect in May 2013. The manual is the field's standard reference, and several recent studies suggested that the amended autism definition was far narrower than intended.

"What I would say to families worried about the new criteria is that they're more open-ended than the old ones," said Catherine Lord, the senior researcher on the study. "So it's very important to find a clinician who understands them, and who is not rushed when making a diagnosis."

Image: Boy with teacher, via Shutterstock

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