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Autism Severity

Posted Jun 17 2009 6:14pm 1 Comment
The DSM V committees drafting revisions to the manual are considering distinguishing between autism disorders based on severity or level of functioning. Some autism "self" advocates have long complained about distinguishing between functioning levels of autism disorders based on functioning labels - HFA, high functioning autism, or LFA, low functioning autism. Some object to the division of autism disorders according to severity.

The DSM -IV already implicitly recognizes these differences by specifying with respect to Aspergers Disorder that:

D. There is no clinically significant general delay in language (e.g., single words used by age 2 years, communicative phrases used by age 3 years).

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.

Language, cognitive development, age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction and childhood curiosity about the environment are all basic elements of functioning in the "environment" .... in the real world. By definition persons with Aspergers Disorder diagnoses do not lack these important elements of real life functioning ability. The criteria for Autistic Disorder by contrast is based in part on the presence of some or all of these components of real life functioning. The persons who suffer from Autistic Disorder are by definition more severely affected by autism deficits than persons with Aspergers Disorder.

My son Conor is severely autistic. That is a fact of life with which we have to deal every minute of every day. He does not possess the communication skills or understanding of the world displayed by Michelle Dawson, Amanda Baggs or Ari Ne'eman. These people can communicate with the world and demonstrate intellectual skills and understanding of the world far beyond what can be imagined for my son. It is silly, just plain silly, and nothing more than that, to pretend that there are not significant differences in functioning levels and understanding between these three examples of high functioning autistic persons who have spent much time in front of television cameras articulating their views of autism disorders and the world and my 13 year old son who reads Dr. Seuss and can not, for his own safety, be left unattended.

As I understand from the Internet Ms Baggs was either at, or about to enter, a college for gifted youth at a similar age. Ms Dawson is a person who, in addition to being an excellent letter carrier in the very challenging world of Canada Post, was able to become an autism researcher, make representation to the Supreme Court of Canada (where she opposed government provision of ABA treatment to autistic children) and to a Canadian Senate committee examining autism treatment and funding issues. Ari Ne'eman is the head of an organization based in Washington DC who regularly appears before cameras, and meets with political and public bodies, declaring on behalf of all autistic persons, including presumably my son and other autistic persons like Jake Crosby and Jonathan Mitchell, that "they", autistics, do not want to be cured.

As a parent of a much more severely affected son with autistic disorder I am tired of the silly attempts to deny the obvious differences between those who can function well like Dawson and Ne'eman and those like my son who require 24 hour supervision. I have visited adult autistic persons living in psychiatric facilities in New Brunswick who can not function in the real world AT ALL let alone make representations to judicial, political and legal institutions or engage in autism research or advocacy.

My son can not speak to the world. But Ari Ne'eman, Amanda Baggs and Michelle Dawson do not speak for him. They do not share his realities. They are not affected by autistic disorder as he is and they show no real awareness of the very real differences between his reality and theirs in their sweeping generalizations about autism and what "autistics" want.

The DSM V committee attempt to distinguish between levels of autism severity or functioning is a step in the right direction. Look for a determined effort from Mr Ne'eman, Ms Baggs and Ms Dawson, and their followers, to oppose that direction. After all, if the obvious differences between high functioning persons with autism and those, like my son, who do not enjoy their gifts, are expressly acknowledged, the self appointed "self" advocates ability to speak on behalf of those much less fortunate autistic persons would be seriously diminished in the eyes of the public and more importantly in the eyes of reporters from the CBC, CNN, the New Yorker Magazine and Newsweek who cater to their wishes.

Focusing on differences in autism severity would, however, bring needed attention to the challenges faced by the severely autistic some of who currently live out their lives in institutions. A couple of years ago a middle aged autistic woman in New York was regularly abused by staff but could not communicate with the world to tell of the abuse. The matter came to light because of a conscientious staff member and video recordings which captured some of the abuse. The plight of that woman, her life challenges and realities, are much different that those of the high functioning autistic media stars who barely acknowledge the existence of the severely autistic and do not display any understanding of their realities.

If the DSM V does differentiate between autism disorders based on functioning levels, or severity levels, it will be a much needed step toward helping those severely autistic who can not speak for themselves. It will help to ensure that their needs, so different than those of media trotting, high functioning "self" advocates will be met. It will be a much needed step in the right direction.

It is time for the low functioning, severely autistic, to be acknowledged and their needs addressed.


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Fully agree. My son who is going to be 4 years old does not speak and I am afraid he my be among the severely autistic group.  In India, most of the time I am blamed for his condition and not doing enough work with him as told by therapist. When I refer to net I found people who claim they are autistic whereas they just appear to be a little bit different. The challenges and concern which severally autistic kids and their parents face is mocked at by such people. How much I hate these publicity seeking money making guys who pretend to be suffering when they have established careers, can talk and display such great leadership and negotiation skills.

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