The dramatic increase in the number of students qualifying for special education under autism in our schools may have been caused, in part, by vague definitions together with ambiguous, variable, and irrelevant evaluation procedures, according to a study published in the open access journal, Autism Research and Treatment. The study examined the definition of autism published by each state education agency (SEA) and the District of Columbia, as well as SEA-indicated evaluation procedures for determining student qualification for autism. The researchers compared components of each SEA definition to aspects of autism from two authoritative sources: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA-2004). They also compared SEA-indicated evaluation procedures across SEAs to evaluation procedures noted in IDEA-2004.
The results indicated that many more SEA definitions incorporate IDEA-2004 features than DSM-IV-TR features. However, despite similar foundations, SEA definitions of autism displayed considerable variability. Many of the definitions were too vague to be of much use. Evaluation procedures were found to vary even more across SEAs. There often was little concordance between the definition (what autism is) and evaluation procedures (how autism is recognized). Definition components often were not addressed by evaluation features, even in a cursory way. One of the least recommended evaluation features was the requirement to administer an autism-specific evaluation as part of the eligibility process. Of the SEAs that included an autism assessment in the evaluation process, none specified the use of a recognized instrument such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) or the Childhood Autism Rating Scales (CARS). Although several of these SEAs did indicate the required use of a state-created autism checklist, none gave any reference to a source or psychometric characteristics of those checklists
Recommendations for state and federal policy changes are discussed. For example, the researchers suggest that the publication of DSM-5 provides SEAs with the opportunity to expand and update their current definition of autism. They note that the DSM-5 criteria encompass all of the elements stated by the current IDEA definition with the exception of allowing for the coexistence of potential emotional disorders. The DSM-5 also recognizes the salience of sensory processing problems and the possibility of coexisting (comorbid) mental health disorders. The study recommends that SEAs consider elements of DSM-5 autism spectrum disorders as they consider revisions to their state definition of autism and corresponding procedures by which assessors will provide data for eligibility determination. Likewise, IDEA-2004 is overdue for Congressional reconsideration and possible amendment, so there is an opportunity to also update and clarify the federal educational definition of autism. Improved, more specific definitions and evaluation procedures will enable SEAs and school districts to better serve students with autism and better allocate resources.
Malinda L. Pennington, Douglas Cullinan, and Louise B. Southern, “Defining Autism: Variability in State Education Agency Definitions of and Evaluations for Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Autism Research and Treatment, vol. 2014, Article ID 327271, 8 pages, 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/327271