New definition of autism could leave out too many

By Amy McDonough COLUMNIST
On February 7, 2012

At least 1 million children and adults are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or related disorders such as Asperger's.

But according to the New York Times, the American Psychiatric Association is considering changing the definition of autism - a move that could exclude many people currently diagnosed with the disorder from receiving the treatment they need.

The new, narrower definition is hoped to curb the growing flood of diagnoses. Dr. David J. Kupfer, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Times the revisions will be finalized by December.

The new definition is being reassessed by the APA to make certain the change is necessary and accurate and will be published in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, according to the Times. Many of the people on the expert panel for this decision disagree about the potential impact of the change, according to the Times, but if this definition is changed, it will prevent those who do not meet the criteria from receiving health, educational and social service aid.

With school budgets for special education decreasing, many with autism are already facing an uphill battle to receive state-funded services. Even with sparse school support, parents of children with autism often get together for social support, creating tight networks based on their children's mutual experiences with autism. It would be devastating for many families to lose both help from the government and from each other if their child no longer fit the definition of the disorder.

If the changes are made, the APA could require new testing to determine if a subject is autistic, according to the Times. Such a screening would include checking the diagnoses and family history, which are both strong indicators that the disorder runs in the family. While this would make it easy for doctors to pinpoint those who are falsely diagnosed, those who were previously diagnosed will have to cope with the loss of aid in insurance, education and other aspects of their life.

Those with higher functioning autism will most likely not be able to receive government aid if they are ruled out of the definition. This is unfair because though they are higher functioning, they are still autistic and could use that extra help to get by in society. Currently, those labeled as higher functioning are eligible for government-funded job support training. The autistic label is ultimately tied to government aid and changing this will be a huge concern for those diagnosed.

Amy McDonough is a senior majoring in psychology and sociology.

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