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Autism and Intellectual Disability: More Denial, More Stigma, This Time In Alabama

Posted Nov 28 2010 8:55am

In Children with Asperger's could lose diagnostic identity we see still more evidence, this time in Alabama,  of the stigma attached to the fact that the vast majority of persons with Autistic Disorder, unlike those with Aspergers Disorder diagnoses,  also have intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairments. Once again the story tells of concerns held buy some that those with Aspergers will be stigmatized by being lumped in with those with Autistic Disorder in the DSM-5  New Autism Spectrum Disorder. In expressing these concerns the subjects interviewed contribute to the stigmatization of those with Intellectual Disability generally and specifically to the many persons with Autistic Disorder and Intellectual Disability
"It's difficult to say where Asperger's ends and autism begins," Mulvihill said.

That difficulty - and the stigma attached to autism - is partly why some adults with Asperger's are not happy about the proposed change in the DSM, Crane said. While those individuals on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum might show only slight symptoms, those on the other end of the spectrum are profoundly affected by the disorder.

Being classified as autistic can make it even more difficult for high-functioning individuals to develop relationships with their peers.

Crane said despite their various challenges, autistic children are highly intelligent.

"These kids are definitely the scientists of tomorrow," said Crane, who established the Riley Center after her son was diagnosed with autism. "They're brilliant. That's why early intervention is so important."

The comments by Crane of the Riley Center are a perfect example of the denial that is so prevalent in any public discussion of Autistic Disorder. The main difference between Autistic Disorder and Aspergers is in the area of intellectual disability.  By definition in the current version of the DSM-IV a person with "autism" criteria AND Intellectual Disability will be excluded from an Asperger's Disorder (DSM-IV, Diagnostic Criteria for Asperger's Disorder  299.80)  diagnosis (as set out on the CDC web site )
"E. There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood.

I have written frequently on the refusal of so many parents, professionals and persons with very high functioning autism disorders to acknowedge the high rates of intellectual disability in persons diagnosed with Autistic Disorder as that disorder is currently diagnosed in the DSM-IV.  The 2006 Canadian Psychological  Association brief to a Canadian Senate committee examining autism stated that:
"Symptoms and Impairments:

• Cognitive impairment is present in about 80% of persons diagnosed with Autism and general intellectual functioning is most often below average. Persons diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder have average to above average intellectual functioning."
The CPA figures with respect to Autism (Autistic Disorder) appear consistent with the CDC figures with respect to the entire autism spectrum:
"Data show a similar proportion of children with an ASD also had signs of intellectual disability than in the past, averaging 44% in 2004 and 41% in 2006."
The 41-44% figure for the entire spectrum includes those with Aspergers diagnoses who, by definition, do not have intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairment.  They are also approximate the numbers provided set out in the ICD-10 for persons with respect to Childhood Autism F84.0:
"F84.0 Childhood Autism

A pervasive developmental disorder defined by the presence of abnormal and/or impaired development that is manifest before the age of 3 years, and by the characteristic type of abnormal functioning in all three areas of social interaction, communication, and restricted, repetitive behaviour. The disorder occurs in boys three to four times more often than in girls. 
All levels of IQ can occur in association with autism, but there is significant mental retardation in some three-quarters of cases."(Bold highlighting added - HLD) 
These figures contradict the denial of intellectual disability inherent in Crane's generalizations that "autistic children are highly intelligent", "these children are definitely the scientists of tomorrow"and "they're brilliant".  Such statements deny the reality of the close association between Autistic Disorder and intellectual disability and are clearly reflections of the stigma attached ... not to autism per se ... but to intellectual disability.  It is the connection between autism and intellectual disability that creates concern for many with Asperger's Disorder about merging Asperger's and autism in the DSM-5.  It is that frequently expressed and highly publicized concern that contributes to the stigmatization of those many persons with Autistic Disorder and Intellectual Disabilities. 
The US National Institute of  Mental Health states with respect to Autism Spectrum Disorders in the section  titled  Problems That May Accompany ASD
"Mental retardation. Many children with ASD have some degree of mental impairment. When tested, some areas of ability may be normal, while others may be especially weak. For example, a child with ASD may do well on the parts of the test that measure visual skills but earn low scores on the language subtests."
What is interesting about the NIMH comment is that it ties mental impairment to language disabilities, another area that distinguishes Autistic Disorder from Asperger's Disorder in the DSM-IV.  It is a relationship that is glossed over by those who wish to disavow the obvious relationship between autism and intellectual disability.  By contrast an Italian study, published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research has expressly underlined the relationship between autism and intellectual disability:
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. (bold highlighting added -HLD)

The denial of the Intellectual Disability connection to autism, as in Autistic Disorder, will be completed in the DSM-5 and will result in further stigmatization of those with Autism and Intellectual Disability.  It will also contribute to the trend to conduct "autism" research excluding persons with autism and intellectual disability the "vast majority" of those with autism as it is currently defined. The study reports in these cases tend to generalize their findings to the entire autism spectrum of disorders despite the exclusion of intellectually disabled autistic subjects.  The informed, mature  and enlightened approach of studying the connection between autism and intellectual disability suggested by the authors of the Italian study will never see the light of day.
The intellectual disabilities of so many with autism, and the very serious challenges they face,  will simply be ignored for fear of stigmatization. The Alabama example is only one of many examples of such stigmatization. 
There will be more.
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