American Psychiatric Association may change definition of autism

Laura Davis

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A proposed revision for a more specific definition of autism is being reassessed by the American Psychiatric Association who is working to complete the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Autism rates have increased dramatically over the past decade and a stricter criterion would decrease the rates at which people are being diagnosed, according to an article in the New York Times.

“I think the attempt to make the definition a little bit more precise is going to be helpful,” said Virginia Kennedy, CSUN professor of special education, who believes students need to be properly diagnosed in order to receive the proper help they need.

According to the New York Times, the proposed change would place three separate diagnoses — autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder — under one category which would be titled autism spectrum disorders.

The current definition for a person with autism is someone who exhibits six or more of 12 listed behaviors. The proposed criteria would require people to display even more behaviors and higher-functioning people may be excluded from the group, according to the New York Times.

Kennedy started one of two autism classes offered at CSUN and has worked with autistic students for about 15 years. The courses are for aimed at those who want to teach students with autism spectrum disorders and other social-communication disorders.

“I don’t think the problem right now is people being over-diagnosed, because I do think they definitely need the help. I don’t want to see fewer kids diagnosed, but what I would like to see is that everyone who needs help gets the right kind of help,” Kennedy said.

The change in definition, which has not been updated in 17 years, could make it more difficult for many individuals who will no longer meet the disorder’s criteria to receive health, educational and social services, the APA study suggests.

CSUN special education Professor Ivor Weiner, who teaches both the foundational and advanced autism courses, is also the father of an autistic child.

“There’s one train-of-thought out there, that it’s (autism) being economically driven because we have too many kids being diagnosed,” Weiner said. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think we need a clearer definition of autism that addresses an individuals needs by making more accurate diagnoses.”

Weiner oversees the Family Focus Resource & Empowerment Center on campus – a non-profit organization sponsored by the CSUN’s Michael D. Eisner College of Education.

“We work with parents of children who have disabilities and a lot of our clients are people who have children with autism,” Weiner said. “We help them through the process by giving them referrals and try to help them navigate the school district and services that are out there.”

The center has three locations, one of which is located on campus.

“We provide services mainly for families with autistic children, but also for professionals and anyone who is interested in learning about these disorders,” said Fatima Cascendeda, family support provider at the Family Focus Resource & Empowerment Center. “Everything is related to special education and we have support groups, a library and computers.”

Kennedy believes some external factors may contribute to the rise of children who are being diagnosed with autism and similar disorders such as asperger’s syndrome.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know about in the prenatal environment that may be contributing to it,” Kennedy said. “There have been good studies so far about inflammation or sicknesses the mother might have had while she was pregnant and when they do a retrospective study and they look back it might have contributed to it.”

Weiner suggests parents and students who are interested in learning more about autism visit the MIND institutes’s site at University of California Davis.

Weiner said the website is an excellent source for autism information, such as medical research, education, treatment, news and events.

“In my opinion it’s a great place for people to start finding information. I think it’s a really good place for parents of children with autism,” Weiner said.