Thursday, February 09, 2012

APA Ignores Concern Over DSM-5 Autism Exclusion of Intellectually Disabled

On July 17 2011 I made a submission to the Neurodevelopmental Disorders DSM Work Group of the American Psychiatric Association.  My submission dealt at length with the exclusionary language added to Mandatory Criterion A of the DSM-5 Autism Spectrum Disorder, language which targets for exclusion from autism diagnosis of persons with intellectual disability.

Since that submission the NYT's Amy Harmon who, like most of the mainstream media when reporting on autism, focuses on high functioning autism and Aspergers, questioned the workgroup's Dr. Catherine Lord about the possibility that the DSM-5 ASD would exclude many higher functioning autistic persons. In the course of that interview Dr. Catherine Lord confessed that there was nothing to worry about that the real exclusionary target of the DSM-5's proposed Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis was the intellectually disabled:

""Catherine Lord, the director of the Institute for Brain Development at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and a member of the committee overseeing the [DSM-5 autism]revisions, said that the goal was to ensure that autism was not used as a “fallback diagnosis” for children whose primary trait might be, for instance, an intellectual disability or aggression." [Bracketed terms added for context - HLD]

- Dr. Catherine Lord, as reported by NYT High Functioning Autism/Asperger's reporter, Amy Harmon, A Specialists’ Debate on Autism Has Many Worried Observers, New York Times, January 20, 2012
Yesterday I received an email form response to my July 17 2011 submission from David Kupfer, M.D.,Chair, DSM-5 Task Force and Darrel Regier, M.D., M.P.H.,
Vice-Chair, DSM-5 Task Force. I do appreciate receiving a reply from the DSM-Task Force even though it is a form reply. The reply itself indicates that the DSM-5 is aware of public concerns about possible exclusion of  persons with high functioning autism and Aspergers from a DSM-5 autism disorder diagnosis. (The form reply refers the reader to an article by work group member Professor Francesca Happé "Why fold Asperger syndrome into autism spectrum disorder in the DSM-5?").   Unfortunately the form reply makes no mention of the express exclusion of persons whose "primary trait" is intellectual disability.

For the DSM-5, as for the mainstream media, autism means high functioning autism and no longer includes CDC autism expert Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp's vast majority of intellectually disabled. The intellectually disabled, the only group expressly mentioned for exclusion from  the DSM-5 autism disorder diagnostic criteria, is not mentioned in the work group's form reply:

(1) The APA Neurodevelopmental Disorders DSM Work Group Form Reply

Dear concerned respondent to the DSM-5 Autism proposal: 

Thank you for contacting the American Psychiatric Association with your thoughts about the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) proposed for DSM-5.  We at APA have been and will continue to be advocates for a full range of services for people with autism and all other neurodevelopmental disorders. We understand the devastating impact that discontinuation of services can have on patients and families. We also recognize that services are determined not just by a diagnosis but also by the severity of symptoms and needs in areas such as education, social skills, activities of daily living, and maintaining personal safety. Even if an individual's diagnosis changes, this does not invalidate the treatments and other services that have worked for him/her, and these services should be continued based on need. 

The new proposed criteria for ASD in the DSM are intended to improve the accuracy of diagnosing the disorders currently known as autistic disorder, Asperger's disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. The proposal is based on years of accumulated clinical, epidemiological, and neuroscience research which was thoroughly examined by the members of the DSM-5 work group on Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Most of the work group members are also clinicians who see patients with these disorders, and the proposal was developed with clinicians and their patients in mind. 

There are clinical and scientific reasons for improving the accuracy of diagnoses.  All patients should have an accurate diagnosis based on the most up-to-date clinical and scientific knowledge available. A more accurate diagnosis will help clinicians and other service providers target available treatments and rehabilitation methods for their patients.  In addition, it is important to note that patients whose symptoms no longer meet diagnostic criteria for the DSM-5 ASD diagnosis will very likely meet the criteria for one or more other diagnoses-for example, a communication disorder, for which interventions are available. From a scientific standpoint, more accurate diagnoses will also help guide research into the causes of the neurodevelopmental disorders and the development of new treatments. An informative article written by a work group member, Dr. Francesca Happé, on the changes to Asperger's disorder can be found on the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative website.

We are hopeful that continuing advances in research, diagnosis and treatment will help us devise better ways to treat autism and to reduce the devastating effect it has on individuals and families. We invite you to visit the DSM-5 Web site at where further information on ASD is available under the "Proposed Revisions" tab. This Web site will be revised and opened for public comment for a third a final time late this spring.  Once again, thank you for your input.

David Kupfer, M.D.
Chair, DSM-5 Task Force

Darrel Regier, M.D., M.P.H.
Vice-Chair, DSM-5 Task Force

(2) My Submission to the Neurodevelopmental Disorders DSM Work Group
American Psychiatric Association
July 17 2011

Neurodevelopmental Disorders DSM Work Group
American Psychiatric Association

Dear NDD Work Group Members

I am the father of a 15 year old son diagnosed at age 2 with Autistic Disorder and assessed with profound developmental delays conditions which severely restrict his everyday functioning. He requires, and will require, 24/7 adult supervision. Since his diagnosis 13 years ago I have actively advocated here in New Brunswick, Canada for government funding of evidence based early intervention and autism specific training of education assistants and resource teachers who work with autistic students. With other parents we have enjoyed some success in these areas although we have had much less success in advocating for adequate adult care and treatment facilities for autistic adults. Throughout our efforts we were guided, and to the extent that we succeeded, we did so because of the leadership of American autism researchers such as Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas and others who established the evidence basis for the effectiveness of applied behavior analysis as an autism therapy. Throughout this time from 1998 the DSM definition of Autistic Disorder and the other Pervasive Developmental Disorders, the latter of which has become identified in popular usage and in research as the Autism Spectrum, was constant. Now the entire category for the "Autism Spectrum" is formally being merged together in the DSM-5 into one disorder divided only by the extent to which daily functioning levels are impaired by the newly defined ASD. I have two primary concerns about this new Autism Spectrum Disorder as it goes through substantive change at both the "high functioning" and "low functioning" end of the "autism spectrum".

1) The effect of the changed definition on research conducted under the DSM-IV definition of Autistic Disorder and the other PDD's.

Although it is a far from being a unanimously held position,it has been often mentioned in discussion of the startling increases in rates of autism diagnoses that the increases are accounted for entirely by the definition changes of autism in the DSM-IV, even though that occurred some 17 years ago, and increased social awareness. It seems entirely predictable that a newly changed definition will also confound our understanding of real autism prevalence.

2) The exclusion from Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis of those with Intellectual Disabilities.

As the father of a son who is severely affected by Autistic Disorder and who is "profoundly developmentally delayed" I am most concerned with the language of the DSM5's new A 09 Autism Spectrum Disorder which appears to exclude those, or many of those, with intellectual disabilities from an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. The proposed Autism Spectrum Disorder definition stipulates that criteria A,B,C and D must all be met in order for an ASD diagnosis to be given. Criterion A states:

A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across contexts, not accounted for by general developmental delays,...

The wording I have highlighted, "not accounted for by general developmental delays" when used in the context of persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across contexts appears to exclude any one with an Intellectual Disability from also being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, since Intellectual Disability will involve exactly those deficits.

This interpretation of the effect of Criterion A of the proposed Autism Spectrum Disorder is also supported by reference to Criterion B of the proposed A 00 Intellectual Developmental Disorder:

"B. The deficits in general mental abilities impair functioning in comparison to a person’s age and cultural group by limiting and restricting participation and performance in one or more aspects of daily life activities, such as communication, social participation, functioning at school or at work, or personal independence at home or in community settings."

It seems clear that in any case of Intellectual Developmental Disorder the mandatory ASD Criterion A, persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction, will always be "accounted for by general developmental delays" and an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis will be precluded.

I am aware that Ms Lisa Jo Rudy of autism has communicated recently with Dr. Bryan King of the NDD work group on the issue of the possible exclusion of intellectually disabled from autism diagnoses. Dr. King provided the following response:

"There is no explicit desire to move anyone in to or out of specific diagnostic groups, however, by creating more specificity we believe that people may be given diagnoses that better capture their individual conditions. The qualifier above about general developmental delays ensures that the social communication deficits are more specific, and also potentially allows for earlier diagnosis if appropriate.

Just as typically developing infants and toddlers are able to engage in very rich social communication and interaction across contexts, appropriate to their developmental level, so too most individuals with intellectual delays or disabilities are also able to communicate. On the other hand, significant deficits in social communication in toddlers may suggest the presence of autism. What the criterion above is meant to ensure is that clinicians take into account what is typical in terms of social communication abilities at a given age or developmental level, and not assume, for example, that a lack of social perception in a teenager with intellectual disability not automatically suggest the presence of autism. As is currently the case, some individuals with Down Syndrome may also meet criteria for autism; but most will not."

The language of the proposed DSM is express and intentional. The absence of desire to remove anyone in or out of the groups does not mean that there is no intent to do so whether desired or not. It is the wording of the proposed revision that will determine future diagnoses. The exclusionary wording I have referenced is not explained in any meaningful way by Dr. King's comment. "More specific" to my humble interpretation is simply another way of saying not part of a general intellectual deficit. Which again indicates that the Intellectually Disabled will be excluded from the DSM's New Autism Spectrum Disorder.

I have commented on several occasions on my blog site Facing Autism in New Brunswick about the high numbers of persons with autism disorders who are also intellectually disabled. I have cited sources for the pre-1994 definition of autism including CDC autism expert Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp who stated that those with intellectual disabilities constituted "the vast majority" of those with autism prior to the 1994 changes which added Asperger's Disorder to the PDD's. The Canadian Psychological Association also referenced 80% of persons with non-Asperger's autism as having intellectual disabilities a figure which seems consistent with the CDC's two surveys showing 41-44% of persons with any autism spectrum disorder, including Aspergers, as having intellectual disabilities. The 1994 changes diluted the 80% figure to roughly 40% by simply adding a group who by definition did not have intellectual disability, those with Asperger's. Now the DSM5 is poised to push the intellectually disabled off the spectrum completely and will essentially redefine autism as what is currently Asperger's disorder.

The DSM5 attempt to completely separate Autism and Intellectual Disability ignores the historically close relationship between those with ID and those severely affected by autism disorder however labelled and ignores the possibility that the the ASD deficits are just components, differing in severity and expression, of intellectual disability. An Italian study has looked at the relationship between Intellectual Disability and called for more research of that relationship:

"Autism and intellectual disability: a study of prevalence on a sample of the Italian population.
La Malfa G, Lassi S, Bertelli M, Salvini R, Placidi GF.
Psychiatry Unit, Department of Neurological and Psychiatric Sciences, University of Florence, Hospital of Careggi, Florence, Italy.
BACKGROUND: In 1994, the American Association on Mental Retardation with the DSM-IV has come to a final definition of pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), in agreement with the ICD-10. Prevalence of PDD in the general population is 0.1-0.15% according to the DSM-IV. PDD are more frequent in people with severe intellectual disability (ID). There is a strict relationship between ID and autism: 40% of people with ID also present a PDD, on the other hand, nearly 70% of people with PDD also have ID. We believe that in Italy PDD are underestimated because there is no agreement about the classification system and diagnostic instruments.

METHOD: Our aim is to assess the prevalence of PDD in the Italian population with ID. The Scale of Pervasive Developmental Disorder in Mentally Retarded Persons (PDD-MRS) seems to be a very good instrument for classifying and diagnosing PDD.

RESULTS: The application of the PDD-MRS and a clinical review of every individual case on a sample of 166 Italian people with ID raised the prevalence of PDD in this population from 7.8% to 39.2%.

CONCLUSIONS: The study confirms the relationship between ID and autism and suggests a new approach in the study of ID in order to elaborate a new integrated model for people with ID."


With great respect to Dr. King and the DSM5 NDD work group I submit that the proposed Autism Spectrum Disorder wording of the DSM5 along with the Intellectual Developmental Disorder clearly operate to remove those with Intellectual Disability from the autism spectrum. I have no way of assessing the motivation for this change with any certainty. I do not really see the explanation offered by Dr. King as providing a coherent rationale for such a fundamental change. Some critics of the previous DSM-IV changes including Dr. Allen Frances have expressed regrets about the unintended consequences that flowed from that last revision. I can really see no good coming to persons with autism and intellectual disability who will no longer be considered autistic because mandatory criterion A can be accounted for by general developmental delay. 

With no intent to insult or engage in confrontation it looks more like the intent is to make life easier for doctors in making autism diagnoses without having to explore the more complicated aspects of a diagnosis when intellectual disability is present. It also makes it easier to calm the fears of those with Asperger's diagnoses who worried about being lumped together with those with autism in the new autism spectrum disorder. What is not at all clear is how this really helps in any way those with autism and intellectual disability.

I ask this working group to reconsider its decision to add language excluding intellectually disabled from the proposed Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM5.


Harold L Doherty
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

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