Asperger’s syndrome now a part of larger ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’

The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, will not include Asperger’s syndrome, the American Psychological Association announced Saturday.

Dr. Laura Politte, child psychologist at the Laurie Center for Autism, said the decision was made to include all diagnoses under the category of “Pervasive Developmental Disorders,” which includes Asperger’s syndrome, into the diagnosis of “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

“The reason for this change was to simplify the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder for clinicians but also to make sure that the diagnosis accurately describes a specific syndrome,” Politte said.

The definition for autism and Asperger’s syndrome are both defined by an impairment in social communication skills and patterns of restrictive and repetitive behavior that interfere with functioning in a variety of settings, said Politte.

“The primary difference is that people with Asperger’s syndrome do not have a history of delayed language development, and they usually have normal intellectual abilities and self-care skills,” she said. “Asperger’s syndrome is often diagnosed at a later age when social differences become more apparent (as when a child first goes to school), and autism is usually more readily apparent from an early age due to atypical language development.”

Politte said there have not been a lot of studies that look specifically at the prevalence of Asperger’s, but an estimate would be about 24 in 10,000 individuals have it and it is more common in boys.

Jodi Johnson, director of disability resources and educational services at CSUN, said there will be no change in on-campus student services, even with the change in definition.

“There may be changes in off-campus services but not on-campus,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she is unsure how many students on campus have Asperger’s or any level of autism because not all register with disability resources.

“There are 40 to 45 students registered every semester right now,” she said. “There has been an increase over the years, and it’s likely that it will continue to go up.”

Tim Page, professor of music and journalism at University of Southern California who has Asperger’s, said it is now included on the autism scale, ranging from slightly Aspergian to in need of full time care.

“I approve of the removal of Asperger’s from the DSM, or to put it more exactly, the decision to make Asperger’s syndrome part of a larger ‘autistic spectrum’ diagnosis,” he said. “What has been called Asperger’s syndrome seems to be a milder form of classic autism and I think that once parents, teachers and the autistic person grow to accept this term, the better it will be for everybody.”

The DSM 5, the updated version, will have a definition that includes descriptors that will be tailored specifically to individuals.

“Right now, there is a lot of variability in the way the PDD diagnoses are applied by clinicians, so that one person diagnosed with ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorders—Not Otherwise Specified’ in one clinic might not receive that diagnosis in another clinic,” she said.

Page said people who are currently affected will be able to take advantage of some of the disability programs available to full-blown autism.

“There won’t be the sort of automatic dismissal of all autistic people that I sometimes see,” he said. “The spectrum has room for all sorts of conditions, all of which are fundamentally related to autism, and they should be called by that name.”

Politte said people with Asperger’s should feel assured the support and treatment they receive will not change with the definition.

“It’s unclear right now what impact the changes will have on the way new diagnoses are made, but as clinicians, we will continue to focus on supporting growth and development while minimizing impairment and suffering,” she said.

Page said Asperger’s can be very much like a double-edged sword.

“I’ve had a lot of anxiety and depression in my life, but at the same time, I don’t think I would have done a lot of the things I have,” he said.