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The Changing Definition of Autism: Critical Issues Ahead

Posted by Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, PhD.

Many in our community are understandably concerned that a planned revision of the medical definition of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) will restrict its diagnosis in ways that will prevent many persons from receiving vital medical and social services. Before I catch you up on some of the details behind this revision, let me first say that although the proposed changes have a solid scientific rationale, we at Autism Speaks are likewise concerned about their effect on access to services. It is crucial that these changes don’t result in discrimination against people who are struggling with autism symptoms. 

As the APA moves forward in formalizing the new definition, we urge that this issue be kept at the forefront of the discussion. As the changes are implemented, scientists, families and providers will all need to carefully monitor its impact on those affected by all forms of ASD. The bottom line is this: We must ensure that all those who struggle with autism symptoms get the services they need. Now let me provide some background. The APA is currently completing work on the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which will be published in 2013. The DSM is the standard reference that healthcare providers use to diagnose mental and behavioral conditions. As such, it influences availability of treatments as well as insurance coverage. An expert panel appointed by the APA has proposed that the new version of the DSM change the current definition of ASD, in part because of shortcomings in how it is currently used for diagnosis. The new definition would do three things.

First, it would eliminate the previously separate categories of Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) from the diagnostic manual. Second, it would fold these disorders, together with “classic” autism, into the single category of ASD. Finally, it would change the criteria for diagnosing ASD. Under the current definition, a person can qualify for an ASD diagnosis by exhibiting at least 6 of 12 behaviors that include deficits in social interaction, communication or repetitive behaviors. Under the proposed definition, the person would have to exhibit three deficits in social interaction and communication and at least two repetitive behaviors. The APA has also proposed that a new category be added to the DSM - Social Communication Disorder. This would allow for a diagnosis of disability in social communication without the presence of repetitive behavior. Based on a recent study, some experts are suggesting that many individuals who currently meet the criteria for ASD, especially those who are more cognitively capable, would no longer meet criteria for ASD. If so, the new criteria would result in discrimination against people who are more cognitively capable. 

We are concerned about this and will do all we can to ensure that all people who are struggling with autism symptoms retain the services they deserve. As these new criteria are rolled out over the coming year, Autism Speaks’ position is that it will be vitally important to collect meaningful information on how the change impacts access to services by those affected by autism symptoms. Further policy changes may be needed to ensure that all persons who struggle with autism symptoms get the services they need. It is important to keep in mind that this revision in the medical definition of ASD is not just an academic exercise. These changes in diagnostic criteria will likely have important influences on the lives of those in our community who critically need services.

[Editor's note: Please see the Autism Speaks policy statement on the DSM-5 revisions and a related FAQ here.]

Tune-in today to hear Autism Speaks’ leadership discuss the recently released analysis of the DSM-5, to be published in 2013, and hear about its potential implications for individuals to receive an autism diagnosis and appropriate services.

  • Then, please join us for a live web chat at 3 pm Eastern with Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Dr. Geraldine Dawson and Vice President of Family Services Lisa Goring – click on the tab on the Autism Speaks Facebook page to join in!
You can read the full Chat Transcript here.

Watch Autism Speaks' Dr. Andy Shih discuss the story on MSNBC “News Nation with Tamron Hall”