Redefining Autism

For many, the phrase “don’t spill the beans” is easily understood to mean don’t share the secret, but for kids with Asperger Syndrome, abstract phrases are hard to understand. Learning idioms is one of the many things kids at Little Friends Center for Autism do in their social skills classes.

“They’re smart kids but it’s not something they would think of on their own,” said Laura, mother of a son with Asperger’s. “So it really helps them out a lot.”

Asperger’s is just one sub-category of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say one in 88 kids in the United States is diagnosed with some form of autism, based on a triad of symptoms: impaired communication, impaired social interactions, and restricted interest or repetitive behaviors. But the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is looking to redefine autism in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM.

“The focus primarily is to be more accurate and more consistent with how we’re diagnosing folks within the autism spectrum,” said Dr Cynthia Brouillard, Director of the Diagnostic Clinic at Little Friends Center for Autism. “Part of the worry was it had gotten a little fuzzy around the edges.”

The APA is planning to change the triad of symptoms to just two domains, combining social and communication disorder. They also want to delete the subcategories, making Autism Spectrum Disorder an all-encompassing name. But reclassifying the disorder has some families upset.

“Typically people with Asperger’s have average IQs or above average IQs,” said Patty Boheme, Executive Vice President at the Little Friends Center for Autism. “Some people with autism have impairments cognitively and so unfortunately I think that there’s some concern about that.”

Many parents fear that their autistic children will lose their services, and even though Little Friends staff say that the new definition shouldn’t impact people who already have a diagnosis, some aren’t convinced.

“I’m still kind of watching and waiting because they say they’re not going to have to re-diagnose, but what happens when the insurance companies get involved,” asked Elise Bock, whose son and two grandsons are on the spectrum.

The American Psychiatric Association is currently doing field tests and will use the results to tweak their proposals. The new edition of the DSM is expected to be released in May of next year.

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