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Autism spectrum disorders: how schools can respond to upcoming changes in definition and diagnosis

January 31, 2012

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect, on average, 1 in 110 children in the US according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Schools have struggled to accommodate the diverse needs of children diagnosed with ASD, partly due to the rapid increase in diagnoses, partly due to the wide range of characteristics, difficulties, and strengths represented in that group.

Writing for CNN Health, Dr. Charles Raison likens ASD to hypertension, another medical diagnosis that affects people along a range, but, which, unlike ASD, is described as a true continuum of severity.  Autism and related disorders, according to the DSM-IV, have a set of twelve “bright line” indicators, six of which must be met to qualify for a diagnosis under the guidelines.

The DSM-V, an in-process revision of the “bible” of psychiatry, includes an effort to revise these indicators in such a way as to reduce “false positives”.  However, in this effort, many are concerned that some children who struggle with ASD-like characteristics may not receive a diagnosis, thus denying them the assistance their advocates say they need to be successful.

For schools, it is easy to view this as a welcome change: fewer students for whom the law requires service.  This, however, is a short-sighted view of bare compliance and denies students with characteristics that “look like autism” but may not carry an official diagnosis.  With proper pedagogy, instructional and program design, and system-wide supports, students’ struggles can be turned into strengths that support their personal and academic achievement.

Key questions:

  1. How does your school serve students with autism spectrum disorders?  Are there provisions in place to ensure their placement based on their actual needs and characteristics, rather than firm criteria which is followed strictly?
  2. Are settings for students with autism designed to challenge students’ strengths while providing support for their struggles?  How many students with ASD but demonstrate high cognitive function are still in segregated settings?
  3. What ways are designed into your school’s interventions to provide support for students who struggle with autism-like characteristics, but who do not have a diagnosis, or have not previously qualified for special education?  Are 504 teams and student intervention teams trained to recognize those issues and what flexibility are they afforded to address those issues?
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