Redefining Autism and Diagnosing the Young

By Allison Schoenauer

Elm Staff Writer

I have memories from when I was a child that date roughly around first grade.  In those memories, my Mom would take me to see different people. In one, was of a woman who made me read off spelling words and define them without the aid of a book. I also remember being in a room full of kids that I didn’t know and being encouraged to play with some toys—which I remember I didn’t end up doing because I waited in line for one specific toy for so long that whatever I was there for ended before I even played with it. Somewhere in there is a hazy memory of seeing a psychologist on a few occasions (I know because I asked her).

When I asked my mom why I was seeing these people and going to these big playrooms, I remember she told me they were tests and all I needed to care about was that I was passing them.

I didn’t find out until years later, when I was fifteen, that all of these tests—the speech pathologist, the intelligence tests, the playroom, and the therapist—were designed to gauge a child’s placement on the autism spectrum.

I bring this up because in a recent issue of TIME Magazine, an article brought up a serious issue: the criteria used to diagnose the five Autism Spectrum Disorders, which include autism, Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Rett syndrome, and perhaps the most controversial, Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, also known as PDD-NOS, will be changing.

The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is currently being written and with the new edition, a new definition of what the Autism Spectrum is will be codified.  This new definition will narrow and specify the criteria for diagnosis, which many parents worry will exclude their child from qualifying for the help within schools—help that is necessary for their children to adapt within and outside of the institution.

Under the new definition, more than 70 percent of children who are diagnosed under one of the “higher functioning” branches of autism—Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS—will be cut out of the Autism Spectrum.  This could have devastating effects on the children.  While children with Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS are statistically more likely to be mainstreamed later in life, in the rare and miraculous PDD-NOS case, an adult who was diagnosed as a child was determined to have grown out of the symptoms, they are still at a disadvantage, either in cognitive intelligence or in their ability to adapt to a social situation.

If these issues aren’t dealt with early on, they can have serious emotional repercussions.  Children who have been diagnosed with one of the Autism Spectrum Disorders are more likely to suffer from depression later in life.  Parents also feel the strain of being left helples; marriages where one or more children are autistic or fall somewhere on the Autism Spectrum are more likely to end in divorce.

The redefinition of autism, however, has all of the best intentions.  Redefining what autism is from Rett syndrome and Rett syndrome from PDD-NOS and PDD-NOS from everything else on the spectrum means that those children have more specified and more focused care.  That focused care results in more adapted children.  More adapted children are more productive, accomplished adults, which is what any mental-health care professional, indeed any parent, asks for.

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