When I read the January 19, 2012 New York Times article "New Definition of Autism Will Exclude Many, Study Suggests", my heart sank. According to Benedict Carey's article (you can read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/health/research/new-autism-definition-would-exclude-many-study-suggests.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp), the American Psychiatric Association is completely changing their diagnosis for autism and autism spectrum disorders, hoping to greatly reduce the number of those diagnosed with ASDs. The APA 's new definition of ASDs will reduce diagnoses of Asperger's Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (P.D.D. - N.O.S.), focusing the autism diagnosis mainly on those with lower cognitive functioning.
Carey explains in the New York Times article that, following the proposed guidelines for "autism spectrum disorders" in the upcoming DSM V, a Yale University research team found that many from their sample of individuals diagnosed with ASD in 1993 would no longer be diagnosed: "About a quarter of those identified with classic autism in 1993 would not be so identified under the proposed criteria; about three-quarters of those with Asperger syndrome would not qualify; and 85 percent of those with P.D.D.-N.O.S. would not. [...] Dr. Volkmar said that although the proposed diagnosis would be for disorders on a spectrum and implies a broader net, it focuses tightly on 'classically autistic' children on the more severe end of the scale. 'The major impact here is on the more cognitively able,' he said" (Carey 2012).
The reason that this is so disturbing is because many of the children that the US special education system currently serves would no longer receive needed educational, health, and social services once the new DSM V comes out. Autism is not being over-diagnosed; rather, more doctors, teachers, and parents have access to information about ASDs now than they did in 1993.
Children with whom I work right now may be denied services, and thus struggle and fail later in the worlds of school, social relationships, and work. Services such as early intervention and special education are necessary for children with ASDs to learn how to not only cope, but also become successful and happy in the world. Cognitive ability should not be the measuring stick of need, because in every situation, we need to interact with others appropriately and deal with the social world in which we live.
I work with children who thrive after receiving the services that the new definition of ASDs thinks they don't need. On behalf of the kids, I am advocating for the American Psychiatric Association to NOT limit the definition of autism spectrum disorders to severe, low-functioning people. Instead of worrying about the cost of special education and social services, we should realize how helpful it is for our young citizens to learn how to be successful in this complex social world. To be on the spectrum and perform some social skills that seem "natural" can be exhausting, uncomfortable, not intuitive, and even scary. Special ed and other services can help make this easier.
Whether you realize it or not, you probably know someone on the spectrum, and if you don't realize it, it may be that they received therapeutic services because of a diagnosis they received. Don't stop people from getting the help they deserve; share this with your friends and family members!