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Redefining Autism Might Prevent Some From Help

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The diagnosis for autism is about to undergo a big change, and it could mean the loss of certain services for some children.

The changes come as the American Psychiatric Association re-works its fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the book most medical professionals turn to for diagnosing mental disorders.

As the parent of a child with autism, Dawn Brasch understands the challenges posed by such changes.

“My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 18-months-old,” she said.

Brasch and other parents in the autism community are particularly concerned about the upcoming changes to the way the disorder is diagnosed. Right now, it’s estimated 1 in 110 children have an autism spectrum disorder. That spectrum ranges from the most severe forms of autism to a high functioning form known as Asperger’s Syndrome.

Under the changes, Asperger’s would no longer exist. So depending on the severity, you would either have autism or you wouldn’t. The new diagnosis would essentially narrow the definition and criteria of autism.

Pat Pulice, the autism services director at the Fraser Child and Family Center, said the changes look worrisome.

“What you label it or call it won’t take away the fact that these people need help,” she said.

The biggest impact may be felt in the services provided to those with Asperger’s, especially in schools where kids get help with social interaction. Those services may no longer be available for a child who no longer falls under the autism criteria.

“They can’t function without the supports,” Brasch said.

It will be months before the final diagnosis guidelines are released; the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders isn’t expected until 2013.

“We are going to have to think outside the box and work together to look at how all this is going to fit together,” Pulice said.

According to Pulice, the real push for these changes is for new research. The idea is this: by defining a more specific category of autism, you can better suggest treatment and get funding for research.

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