CHICAGO — For the first time in nearly two decades, experts want to rewrite the definition of autism. Some parents fear that if the definition is narrowed, their children may lose out on special therapies.
For years, different autism-related labels have been used, the best known being Asperger's disorder. The doctors working on the new definition want to eliminate separate terms and lump them all into an "autism spectrum disorder" category.
Some specialists contend the proposal will exclude as many as 40 percent of kids now considered autistic. Parents of mildly affected children worry their kids will be left out and lose access to academic and behavioral services.
But doctors on the American Psychiatric Association panel that has proposed the changes say none of that would happen.
With new government data last week suggesting more kids than ever in the United States — 1 in 88 — have autism, the new definition may help clarify whether the rising numbers reflect a true increase in autism or overdiagnosis by doctors.
There is no definitive test for autism. The diagnosis that has been used for at least 18 years covers children who once were called mentally retarded. Today, some children diagnosed with autism may no longer fit the definition when they mature.
"We're wanting to use this opportunity to get this diagnosis right," said Dr. Bryan King, a member of the revision panel and director of the autism center at Seattle Children's Hospital.
The group's trustees are expected to vote on the proposals in December.