The Definition of Autism – How Will Possible Changes Affect Special Education Services?

There has been much talk about the potential changes to the Autism Diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) when the updated, fifth version is published (the projected date of publication is May of 2013). One of the expected changes is to combine several disorders including, Autism,Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) into one category called Autism Spectrum Disorder. Although this change concerns some people, most people in the fields of medicine, community services and education already lump these diagnoses together.

The major concern is over the potential changes to the specific criteria that people will have to meet to receive the official diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. In the current manual, a person can qualify for the diagnosis by exhibiting six or more of 12 specified behaviors. The proposed changes to the criteria narrow the field; a person would have to exhibit three or more deficits in social interaction and communication and exhibit at least two repetitive behaviors. The fear is that this will leave out a large group of people who are considered high functioning (including a huge portion of children with the current diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and PDD-NOS). Currently, scientific, trial testing of the new criteria is under way and this data will be used to make final recommendations.

Although changes to the diagnosis will likely affect service delivery in the medical field and the community services field they are not projected to make significant changes in the education field because qualification for special education is not based on a particular diagnosis but on educational needs. Currently the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines the educational category of Autism as “a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.” Each state has their own interpretation of this law so it is worthwhile to search for your state’s educational definition of Autism.

Some people fear that a change to the official DSM diagnosis will give school districts a way to stop or decrease services for certain students who currently qualify for services. If schools attempt to do this, many experts believe that children who are on the higher functioning end of the Autism spectrum may still qualify for special education under the category of Other Health Impaired. It is also important to note that a school district cannot discontinue providing a service such as Speech Therapy or Occupational Therapy unless the child exhibits significant improvement and there is no longer a need for remediation in that area.

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