Illustration: Matt Golding.
“Australia‘s foremost authority on Asperger’s Syndrome has warned of ”tragic consequences” if governments use the new narrower diagnostic criteria for autism to cut funding for children at the mild end of the spectrum.
”A child diagnosed with apparently mild autism may have challenges that are profound to them. If they are offered little or no support, there potentially could be tragic consequences,” Professor Tony Attwood told the new edition of the Australian Autism Handbook, which will be published on Monday.
Changes to the criteria for the diagnosis of autism – which unlocks $12,000 in funding – are due to come into effect in May.
According to Australian and American studies, the changes are likely to exclude the highest-functioning 9 per cent to 23 per cent of autistic children, many of whom would have received a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism under the old criteria.
Those higher-functioning autistics are likely to receive a diagnosis of social communication disorder, as distinct from autism spectrum disorder.
The federal government has yet to decide whether children who have received the lesser diagnosis of social communication disorder will qualify for Helping Children with Autism funding.
”At worst, 75 per cent of those with a current diagnosis of Asperger’s will no longer meet the criteria for an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis under the new criteria,” Professor Attwood said.
The HCWA program has been in place since 2008 and has helped 19,000 children gain access to early intervention services that vastly improve their chances of fitting into mainstream schooling. It is estimated one in 100 children in Australia has autism, though the most recent survey in the US put the rate there at one in 50. Boys are afflicted more often than girls.
Professor Attwood’s caution is supported by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists president Maria Tomasic, who said: ”The diagnostic criteria suggests disability may be similar to that of Asperger disorder and will require comparable support. As social communication disorder is a new diagnosis, we do not yet know its validity or associated disability.”
Minister for Disability Reform Jenny Macklin said through a spokesman that her department would ”continue to monitor international best practice and liaise with the Department of Health and professional health bodies about the appropriateness of the tool for diagnosing autism in Australia”.
Sydney mother Kristen Callow knows the trouble parents of newly diagnosed children might find themselves in if funding is cut. Her daughter Juliet, 7, could read at age two but, despite having 500 words in her vocabulary, could not communicate ”I want juice”. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 3.
”It could very well be that we would have missed the boat,” Mrs Callow says. ”It’s hard to argue that a profile like that does not need help.
”We got a lot of ‘she is fine’, a lot of dismissal of our concerns. Because she had 500 words, our paediatrician at the time was totally unconcerned.”
After Juliet accessed the early intervention program she has been able to attend mainstream school.
Despite initial difficulties with anxiety and adapting to the social environment, Mrs Callow says Juliet is doing very well.”
This article has been written by Kathryn Wicks, co-author of Australia’s Autism Handbook
- High Functioning Autism in Females – Addressing the level of misdiagnosis reported by parents of daughters with Asperger’s Syndrome – High Functioning Autism (seventhvoice.wordpress.com)
- Changes To Autism Diagnosis: Benefits And Challenges Ahead (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Signs of Asperger’s Syndrome (mylittlemr.com)
- Guideline Changes Have Asperger’s Community on Edge (news.health.com)
- Guideline Changes Have Asperger’s Community on Edge (webmd.com)
- Autism numbers rise in latest count (usatoday.com)
- Autism Diagnoses Rise Among U.S. Children, CDC Finds – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Can you tell just by looking? (seventhvoice.wordpress.com)
- Conditions Related to Autism – Asperger’s Syndrome (everydayfamily.com)
- Acceptance on Child’s Disability (mylittlemr.com)