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Proposed changes to autism definition worries parents

January 20, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
The American Psychiatric Association is currently looking at whether it should adopt a changing definition of autism into its manual of mental disorders.

The changes would likely slow the rapidly increasing rate of autism diagnoses by narrowing the definition.

While the change could drive research, treatment, and insurance decisions, it would also raise concerns for parents of children with autism.

Majiney Eulingbourgh is one such parent. Her son, Dameon, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.

"Most kids pay attention to the cartoons, the loud noises he didn't. He was fascinated with things that turned: wheels, ceiling fans," she said.

But because of that early intervention, Eulingborough said her now 10-year-old boy can read, write and interact like any child his age.

Eulingborough fears that if the proposed changes do go through in 2013, it could alter the way state agencies and insurance handle services.

She also feels that by narrowing the definition of autism, some children won't get the help that her son received, and ultimately made the difference.

"For a lot of parents who can't afford the services, and for children who really need it, it's hard," she said.

The new definition would eliminate sub-threshold categories of autism such as asperger's or pervasive developmental disorder.

"Those sort of separate categories are not very helpful in either treating children or in really diagnosing them," said Dr. Douglas Vanderbuilt of Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Instead, he thinks having one category of autism and evaluating a child based on his severity of symptoms makes more sense.

"Most children that I've seen with autism on the old criteria, with the new criteria, are still going to have autism," he said.

He also said that when it comes to what insurance companies decide to cover or not cover is really a matter of interpretation.

"What the insurers decide to cover or not cover, what the regional center or school system will cover or not cover, depends on how they interpret these diagnostic changes," Dr. Vanderbuilt said.

The United State's rate of autism is believed to be one in 110. Dr. Vanderbuilt believes much of that is driven by the focus to identify new cases. If the new way of categorizing autism is adopted, he doesn't think it will change the number of kids diagnosed. This would be the first major revision on autism in 17 years.