The American Psychiatric Association announced Wednesday that it is proposing to eliminate the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome from the official diagnostic guide of mental disorders. The revised manual would place kids who are currently said to have Asperger's within an expanded definition of autism.
That change might affect how families get special education services in public schools. Currently, parents of children with autism turn to the federal law that guarantees a free public education for students with disabilities. Kids with autism clearly qualify, but for kids with Asperger's, it's much less clear. They are often highly intelligent but have social problems that make it hard for them to thrive in school.
Melinda Bird, senior counsel with the advocacy group Disability Rights California, says the current guidelines used by psychiatrists present parents with confusing criteria for the disorder. As a result, Bird says, "parents spend unnecessary time arguing whether a child meets every one of these nuanced criteria."
She says California school districts regularly question whether kids with Asperger's need special education services because they are often very verbal and very sharp. The new proposed guidelines could ease that confusion by eliminating the Asperger's diagnosis, as well as the unfortunately named "Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified." That change may make it easier to get services, and could speed up what has become a lengthy process.
Bird says that's good for both parents and school districts.
"[They] will no longer have to slice and dice a child up into all of these different eligibility criteria," she says, "and everyone will be able to get on about the business of educating children in need."
But special education is seldom that simple.
Many attorneys say getting kids recognized as eligible for services is not their biggest challenge. It's getting the services that families want, whether that's tutoring or placement in a special school. Steven Greenburg, a special education attorney in Northern California, says with or without the Asperger's category, schools draw a line in the sand.
"Schools often balk at private placement, at having to pay for a placement outside of public school," he says.
That's because private placements can cost districts tens of thousands of dollars a year per student.
Greenburg says the issue boils down to whether parents in an individual case are happy with what schools offer.
"What do you with that diagnosis?," he asks. "Does the child stay in the public school? Should they be disciplined as other students who do not have the disorder?"
It's another important question because disabled students have protections against being expelled when they act out.
Educators who work with these students say they are concerned about the Asperger's change for another reason: They feel they're losing a valuable tool that signaled what these kids need.
"It sort of let teachers know that there are a particular set of supports that are needed for these children," says Dania Jekel, who runs the Asperger's Association of New England.
Like other professionals, many educators say they have become accustomed to the Asperger's label, and they're concerned that the new category will just complicate things for kids who already face a lot of challenges.