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Asperger’s Only Looks Like Autism

January 9 2010 | by

Asperger’s syndrome looks a lot like autism, but it isn’t. That isn’t stopping medical experts from considering a change to a national mental illness classification guide to roll Asperger’s under autism — a move that has many people connected to Asperger’s in an uproar.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) say they may eliminate the Asperger’s definition -– characterized by social isolation and eccentric behavior in childhood — in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which is considered the bible of medical classifications. The definition would be revised in 2012.

Asperger’s may instead be included under autism, a complex neuro-developmental disorder that can also be defined by impaired social interaction, among other behavioral eccentricities.

This move isn’t being taken lightly. Though the DSM is universally consulted by psychiatrists, doctors, health insurers, and educators, it includes some egregious errors. For instance, prior to 1968 homosexuality was listed as a disorder. Those connected to the Asperger’s community are eyeing this move with substantial trepidation, and are working to convince those who write the classifications that indeed, this disorder is in a class of it’s own.

Yes, autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning there are both low and high functioning individuals. And yes, high-functioning autistics can look at lot like those with Asperger’s. But parents say that in order to improve research, treatment, and tolerance, the two disorders cannot simply be lumped together. Here are the major differences:

Early development: According to the APA , children with Asperger’s develop language differently than autistic children. Those with Asperger’s grasp language quickly, sometimes even more quickly than their cohorts, while typical autistic children show language delays and tend to point and grunt instead.

Symptoms: According to the APA, 20 percent of children diagnosed with autism also experience seizures, while those with Asperger’s have seizures as often as the general population. At the same time, people with Asperger’s are more likely to have Tourette’s syndrome and affective disorders.

Treatment: There are many professionals who have a specialized knowledge base only for Asperger’s. If we change the diagnosis, would they be qualified to treat those with autism as a whole? Moreover, the literature for Asperger’s currently addresses topics like higher education and romantic relationships, which usually don’t apply to autistic people.

Perhaps the most significant difference lies in what causes each disorder, and researchers are still a long way off from knowing. As Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University said in a recent New York Times op-ed, medical experts must be careful not to unwittingly blur important differences between these subgroups.

With insufficient neurological and biological data, the APA and NIMH should hold off on making any rash decisions.

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