STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, here's another change being introduced today. The new Manual of Psychiatric Disorders does not include Aspergers disorder. That diagnosis, recognized since 1994, goes away, as do others related to autism. They will now be considered part of a broad category know as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
NPRs Jon Hamilton explains why.
JON HAMILTON: The differences between Aspergers and autism have always been subtle. Both involve restricted, repetitive behaviors and difficulties with social interaction. Aspergers is often considered a mild form of autism, but some people diagnosed with Aspergers actually have more difficulty functioning in society than some people labeled autistic. And who gets which label can be pretty arbitrary. So for health professionals, a single broad category makes sense. But for a lot of people with Aspergers, the proposed change is upsetting.
Mr. MICHAEL JOHN CARLEY (Global & Regional Asperger's Syndrome Partnership): I personally am probably going to have a hard time calling myself autistic.
HAMILTON: Michael John Carley runs the Global and Regional Asperger's Syndrome Partnership in New York. He says many people with Asperger's take pride in a diagnosis associated with some big names.
Mr. CARLEY: Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson.
HAMILTON: Carley says under the new system, these geniuses would represent just one extreme on a spectrum.
Mr. CARLEY: And yet on the vast other extreme, somebody who might have to wear adult diapers and maybe a head restraining device. This is very hard for us to swallow, that these two extremes might indeed just have different variations of the same condition.
HAMILTON: But Carley says he realizes that there is strong scientific evidence supporting that idea. And he says efforts to separate Asperger's and autism just haven't worked.
Mr. CARLEY: The problem is that the clinical world has for so long attempted to draw a line in the sand where autism becomes Asperger's and vice versa. And every time they've tried to draw that line it's been proven false in practice.
HAMILTON: Right now, the diagnosis often hinges on language and communications skills in early childhood. But those are pretty subjective and can change dramatically as a child grows up. Catherine Lord from the University of Michigan is part of the group that decided to combine all the autism-related diagnoses into one. She says the current system is a mess.
Professor CATHERINE LORD (University of Michigan): The categories are just not used by clinicians in a reliable fashion.
HAMILTON: Lord says the change is not an effort to influence how people with Asperger's or autism identify themselves.
Prof. LORD: The intent is to try to make the diagnosis of autism - what we're calling Autism Spectrum Disorders - clearer and to better reflect the science and also the knowledge of how people use these terms.
HAMILTON: So instead of agonizing over autism versus Asperger's, clinicians can focus on each person's specific difficulties, with communication or social interaction or information processing.
To experts in the field, that sounds like a good idea. Roy Richard Grinker is an anthropologist at George Washington University. He has studied autism in other cultures and in his own family.
Professor ROY RICHARD GRINKER (George Washington University): As somebody who has a child with a diagnosis of autism, I want to be able to turn to the official criteria and see a description that sounds like my child. Right now, my child sounds like three or four different disorders.
HAMILTON: Grinker says when his daughter was three, she met the criteria for classic autism. Now that she's 18, she would probably be considered Asperger's, or maybe just a quirky kid. At the moment, different diagnostic labels may qualify people for different services. But Grinker says losing the Asperger's diagnosis does not mean families will lose services they need.
Prof. GRINKER: Almost anybody with an Asperger's diagnosis also could qualify for what is called autistic disorder.
HAMILTON: And he says the change could actually make it easier for parents who are struggling to get help for a child with Asperger's.
Prof. GRINKER: They may be denied services from certain regional or state centers because their child doesn't have a diagnosis of autism. I know this is the case in California. And so removing Asperger's really removes what is a false barrier to parents getting care for their kids.
HAMILTON: The American Psychiatric Association plans to spend the next few months reviewing comments on the proposed changes. The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is due out in 2013.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.