Diagnostic Criteria for Autism

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Only well-qualified, trained professionals can issue an autism diagnosis.  The American Psychiatric Association has outlined diagnostic criteria for autism in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  In this article, you will find the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder under both DSM-5 and the DSM-IV.

If your child is showing signs of autism and you need to have them evaluated, please read I Think My Child May Have Autism: How to Get a Diagnosis.


Before we go into details about the diagnostic criteria for autism, it is important to understand a few things:

  • Autism is a clinical diagnosis.
    • This means there is no lab test that can tell you if your child does or doesn't have autism.
    • Therefore, an autism diagnosis is based on developmental history and behavior.
  • Because autism symptoms vary and can range from mild to severe, it is considered a spectrum disorder.
  • Also, in 2013, autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome were consolidated under one diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder” in the DSM-5.
    • Consequently, the DSM-5 now requires healthcare providers to categorize individuals into “severity levels” to help identify their support needs.

 

DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder

A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):
  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.
  • Specify Current Severity:
    • Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see “Severity Levels” below).
B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):
  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  2. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day).
  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
  4. Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).
  • Specify Current Severity:
    • Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see “Severity Levels” below).
 
C. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).
D. Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.
  • Note: Individuals with a well-established DSM-IV diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified should be given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Individuals who have marked deficits in social communication, but whose symptoms do not otherwise meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder, should be evaluated for social (pragmatic) communication disorder.
  • Specify if:
    • With or without accompanying intellectual impairment
    • With or without accompanying language impairment
    • Associated with a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor
      • Coding note: Use additional code to identify the associated medical or genetic condition.
    • Associated with another neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder
      • Coding note: Use additional code[s] to identify the associated neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder[s].
    • With catatonia (refer to the criteria for catatonia associated with another mental disorder for definition)
      • Coding note: Use additional code 293.89 [F06.1] catatonia associated with autism spectrum disorder to indicate the presence of the comorbid catatonia.

 

Severity Levels for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support
  • Social Communication:
    • Severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills cause severe impairments in functioning, very limited initiation of social interactions, and minimal response to social overtures from others. For example, a person with few words of intelligible speech who rarely initiates interaction and, when he or she does, makes unusual approaches to meet needs only and responds to only very direct social approaches.
  • Restricted, Repetitive Behaviors:
    • Inflexibility of behavior, extreme difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors markedly interfere with functioning in all spheres. Great distress/difficulty changing focus or action.
Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support
  • Social Communication:
    • Marked deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills; social impairments apparent even with supports in place; limited initiation of social interactions; and reduced or abnormal responses to social overtures from others. For example, a person who speaks simple sentences, whose interaction is limited to narrow special interests, and who has markedly odd nonverbal communication.
  • Restricted, Repetitive Behaviors:
    • Inflexibility of behavior, difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors appear frequently enough to be obvious to the casual observer and interfere with functioning in a variety of contexts. Distress and/or difficulty changing focus or action.
Level 1: Requiring Support
  • Social Communication:
    • Without supports in place, deficits in social communication cause noticeable impairments. Difficulty initiating social interactions, and clear examples of atypical or unsuccessful responses to social overtures of others. May appear to have decreased interest in social interactions. For example, a person who is able to speak in full sentences and engages in communication but whose to-and-fro conversation with others fails, and whose attempts to make friends are odd and typically unsuccessful.
  • Restricted, Repetitive Behaviors:
    • Inflexibility of behavior causes significant interference with functioning in one or more contexts. Difficulty switching between activities. Problems of organization and planning hamper independence.

*The DSM-5 was published in May 2013.


 

DSM-IV Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders

*Please Note: The DSM-IV is no longer used.  We are providing diagnostic criteria for autism under the DSM-IV for informational purposes only. 

 

299.00 Autistic Disorder

  1. A total of six (or more) items from (1), (2), and (3), with at least two from (1), and one each from (2) and (3):
    1. qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:
      1. marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors, such as eye-to- eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
      2. failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
      3. a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest)
      4. lack of social or emotional reciprocity
    2. qualitative impairments in communication, as manifested by at least one of the following:
      1. delay in, or total lack of, the development of spoken language (not accompanied by an attempt to compensate through alternative modes of communication such as gesture or mime)
      2. in individuals with adequate speech, marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
      3. stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language
      4. lack of varied, spontaneous make-believe play or social imitative play appropriate to developmental level
    3. restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities as manifested by at least one of the following:
      1. encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
      2. apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
      3. stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting or complex whole-body movements)
      4. persistent precoccupation with parts of objects
  2. Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to age 3 years: (1) social interaction, (2) language as used in social communication, or (3) symbolic or imaginative play.
  3. The disturbance is not better accounted for by Rett's disorder or childhood disintegrative disorder.

299.80 Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified

This category should be used when there is a severe and pervasive impairment in the development of reciprocal social interaction or verbal and nonverbal communication skills, or when stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities are present, but the criteria are not met for a specific pervasive developmental disorder, schizophrenia, schizotypal personality disorder, or avoidant personality disorder. For example, this category includes "atypical autism" -- presentations that do not meet the criteria for autistic disorder because of late age of onset, atypical symptomatology, or subthreshold symptomatology, or all of these.

299.80 Asperger's Disorder

  1. Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:
    1. marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors, such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
    2. failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
    3. a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
    4. lack of social or emotional reciprocity
  2. Restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:
    1. encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
    2. apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
    3. stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)
    4. persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
  3. The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. Criteria are not met for another specific pervasive developmental disorder or schizophrenia.

299.80 Rett's Disorder

  1. All of the following:
    1. apparently normal prenatal and perinatal development
    2. apparently normal psychomotor development through the first 5 months after birth
    3. normal head circumference at birth
  2. Onset of all of the following after the period of normal development:
    1. deceleration of head growth between ages 5 and 48 months
    2. loss of previously acquired purposeful hand skills between ages 5 and 30 months with the subsequent development of stereotyped hand movements (i.e., hand-wringing or hand washing)
    3. loss of social engagement early in the course (although often social interaction develops later)
    4. appearance of poorly coordinated gait or trunk movements
    5. severely impaired expressive and receptive language development with severe psychomotor retardation

 

299.10 Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

  1. Apparently normal development for at least the first 2 years after birth as manifested by the presence of age-appropriate verbal and nonverbal communication, social relationships, play, and adaptive behavior.
  2. Clinically significant loss of previously acquired skills (before age 10 years) in at least two of the following areas:
    1. expressive or receptive language
    2. social skills or adaptive behavior
    3. bowel or bladder control
    4. play
    5. motor skills
  3. Abnormalities of functioning in at least two of the following areas:
    1. qualitative impairement in social interaction (e.g., impairment in nonverbal behaviors, failure to develop peer relationships, lack of social or emotional reciprocity)
    2. qualitative impairments in communication (e.g., delay or lack of spoken language, inability to initiate or sustain a conversation, stereotyped and repetitive use of language, lack of varied make-believe play)
    3. restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, including motor stereotypies and mannerisms
  4. The disturbance is not better accounted for by another specific pervasive developmental disorder or by schizophrenia.

Conclusion

In summary, knowing the specific diagnostic criteria for autism can help you understand what professionals are looking for when determining whether or not your child has autism. Furthermore, because diagnostic criteria is specific and based on behavior and developmental history, it is important that your child is assessed by a qualified and experienced professional.  For more information on how to obtain a diagnosis, click here.


*All content of this article is for informational purposes only. Furthermore, it is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For this reason, always seek the advice of your physician, therapist, or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have.