Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Asperger's Syndrome Revisited

The deletion of Asperger’s disorder (Asperger's syndrome) as a separate diagnostic category from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has been widely publicized. The new DSM-5 category of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which subsumes the previous DSM-IV diagnoses of autistic disorder (autism), Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), reflects the scientific consensus that symptoms of the various DSM-IV subgroups represent a single continuum of impairment that varies in level of severity and need for support.
An important feature of the DSM-5 criteria for ASD is a change from three symptom domains (triad) of social impairment, communication deficits and repetitive/restricted behaviors, interests, or activities to two domains (dyad); social/communication deficits and fixated and repetitive pattern of behaviors. Several social/communication criteria were merged to clarify diagnostic requirements and reflect research indicating that language deficits are neither universal in ASD, nor should they be considered as a defining feature of the diagnosis. The criteria also feature dimensions of severity that include current levels of language and intellectual functioning as well as greater flexibility in the criteria for age of onset and addition of symptoms not previously included in the DSM-IV such as sensory interests and aversions.
DSM-IV Criteria in Practice
Problems in applying the DSM-IV criteria were a key consideration in the decision to delete Asperger’s disorder as a separate diagnostic entity. Numerous studies indicate that it is difficult to reliably distinguish between Asperger syndrome, autism, and other disorders on the spectrum in clinical practice (Attwood, 2006; Macintosh & Dissanayake, 2006; Leekam, Libby, Wing, Gould & Gillberg, 2000; Mayes & Calhoun, 2003; Mayes, Calhoun, & Crites, 2001; Miller & Ozonoff, 2000; Ozonoff, Dawson, & McPartland, 2002; Witwer & Lecavalier, 2008). For example, children with autism who develop proficient language have very similar trajectories and later outcomes as children with Asperger disorder (Bennett et al., 2008; Howlin, 2003; Szatmari et al., 2000) and the two are indistinguishable by school-age (Macintosh & Dissanayake, 2004), adolescence (Eisenmajer, Prior, Leekam, Wing, Ong, Gould & Welham 1998; Ozonoff, South and Miller 2000) and adulthood (Howlin, 2003). Individuals with Asperger disorder also typically meet the DSM-IV communication criterion of autism, “marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others,” making it is possible for someone who meets the criteria for Asperger’s disorder to also meet the criteria for autistic disorder.
Treatment and Outcome
Another important consideration was response to treatment. Intervention research cannot predict, at the present time, which particular intervention approach works best with which individual. Likewise, data is not available on the differential responsiveness of children with Asperger’s disorder and high-functioning autism to specific interventions (Carpenter, Soorya, & Halpern, 2009). There are no empirical studies demonstrating the need for different treatments or different responses to the same treatment, and in clinical practice the same interventions are typically offered for both autism and Asperger’s disorder (Wilkinson, 2010). Treatments for impairments in pragmatic (social) language and social skills are the same for both groups.
Application of the New Criteria
It’s important to remember that in the DSM, a mental disorder is conceptualized as a clinically important collection of behavioral and psychological symptoms that causes an individual distress, disability or impairment. The objective of new DSM-5 criteria for ASD is that every individual who has significant “impairment” in social-communication and restricted and repetitive behavior or interests should meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD.  Because language impairment/delay is not a necessary criterion for diagnosis, anyone who demonstrates severe and sustained impairments in social skills and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities in the presence of generally age-appropriate language acquisition and cognitive functioning, who might previously have been given a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder, will now meet the criteria for ASD.
The new DSM-5 criteria for ASD have created significant controversy over concerns that it would exclude many individuals currently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS, and thus make it difficult for them to access services. However, recently published field trials suggest that the revisions actually increase the reliability of diagnosis, while identifying the large majority of those who would have been diagnosed under the DSM-IV-TR. Of the small numbers who were not included, most received the new diagnosis of “social communication disorder.” Moreover, the accuracy of non-spectrum classification (specificity) made by DSM-5 was better than that of DSM-IV, indicating greater effectiveness in distinguishing ASD from non-spectrum disorders such as language disorders, intellectual disability, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety disorders. It is also important to note that all individuals who have a DSM-IV diagnosis on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS, will be able to retain an ASD diagnosis. This means that no one should “lose” their diagnosis because of the changes in diagnostic criteria.  According to DSM-5, individuals with a well-established DSM-IV diagnosis of Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, or PDD-NOS should be given a diagnosis of ASD.  Those who have marked deficits in social communication, but whose symptoms do not meet the criteria for ASD, should be evaluated for Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder.
In conclusion, the DSM-5 category of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which subsumes the current diagnoses of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), better describes our current understanding about the clinical presentation and course of the neurodevelopmental disorders. Conceptualizing autism as a spectrum condition rather than a categorical diagnostic entity is in keeping with the extant research suggesting that there is no clear evidence that Asperger’s disorder and high-functioning autism are different disorders. As Gillberg (2001) notes, the terms Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism are more likely “synonyms” than labels for different disorders. Lord (2011) also comments that although there has been much controversy about whether there should be separate diagnoses, "Most of the research has suggested that Asperger's syndrome really isn't different from other autism spectrum disorders." "The take-home message is that there really should be just a general category of autism spectrum disorder, and then clinicians should be able to describe a child's severity on these separate dimensions." Unfortunately, many individuals may have been advised (or assumed) that a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder was separate and distinct from autistic disorder and that intervention/treatment, course, and outcome were clinically different for each disorder. While including Asperger’s Disorder under the DSM-5 category of ASD will likely continue to require a period of transition and adjustment, the proposed dimensional approach to diagnosis will likely result in more effective identification, treatment, and research for individuals on the spectrum.
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Attwood, T. (2006). The complete guide to Asperger’s syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Carpenter, L. A., Soorya, L. & Halpern, D. (2009). Asperger’s syndrome and high- functioning autism. Pediatric Annals, 38, 30-35.
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Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Dr. Wilkinson is also editor of a recent volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Autism and Savant Syndrome

What are “savant skills?”
There is a long history of reports of individuals who despite having severe intellectual impairments, demonstrate remarkable skills in a particular area. The term “savant” has been variously defined as those individuals who show (a) normatively superior performance in an area and (b) a discrepancy between their performance in that area and their general level of functioning. Some researchers have differentiated “prodigious” savants (e.g., individuals possessing an exceptional ability in relation to both their overall level of functioning and the general population) from “talented” savants (e.g., individuals showing an outstanding skill in comparison with their overall level of functioning). Savant skills have been reported much more frequently in males than in females and have been identified in a wide range of neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders. The most commonly reported savant skills are mathematical skills (calendrical calculations, rapid arithmetic and prime number calculations), music (especially the ability to replay complex sequences after only one exposure), art (complex scenes with accurate perspective either created or replicated following a single brief viewing) and memory for dates, places, routes or facts. Less frequently reported are “pseudo-verbal” skills (hyperlexia or facility with foreign languages), coordination skills and mechanical aptitude.
Although there have been many single case or small group studies of individuals with autism who possess savant abilities or exceptional cognitive skills, there have been few systematic, large-scale investigations in this area. Inconsistencies in definition and wide variation in diagnostic criteria, ages and ability levels of the cases reported are problematic, as is a paucity of valid information on rates of savant skills in ASD. The objective of this research study was to investigate the nature and frequency of savant skills in a large sample of individuals with autism who had been initially diagnosed as children.
The total sample was comprised 137 individuals, first diagnosed with autism as children, who were subsequently involved in an ongoing, longitudinal follow-up study. Cognitive assessments (Wechsler Scales) were completed for all participants (100 males and 37 females) between the ages of 11 and 48 years (mean age of 24). Parental report data on savant skills were obtained approximately 10 years later at a subsequent follow-up.  Cognitive ability ranged from severe intellectual impairment to superior functioning. Savant skills were judged from parental reports and specified as “an outstanding skill/knowledge clearly above participant’s general level of ability and above the population norm.”
Of the 93 individuals for whom parental questionnaire and cognitive data were available, 16 (17.2%) met criteria for a parent-rated skill, 15 (16.8%) had an exceptional cognitive skill and 8 (8.6%) met criteria for both. There were 14 calendrical calculators (one also showed exceptional memory and another also showed skill in computation and music). There were four others with computational skills (in one case combined with memory and in another case with music). Visuospatial skills (e.g., directions or highly accurate drawing) were reported in three individuals. One individual had a musical talent, one an exceptional memory skill and one had skills in both memory and art. The subtest on which participants were most likely to meet the specified criteria for an area of unusual cognitive skill was block design followed by digit span, object assembly and arithmetic.
There was a sex difference (albeit statistically non-significant) in the prevalence of savant skills. Almost one-third (32%) of males showed some form of savant or special cognitive skill compared with 19 percent of females. No individual with a non-verbal IQ below 50 met criteria for a savant skill and contrary to some earlier hypotheses; there was no indication that individuals with higher rates of stereotyped behaviors/interests were more likely to demonstrate savant skills.
In total, 39 participants (28.5%) met criteria for a savant skill. Cognitively, 23 individuals (17% of total sample) met criteria for one or more exceptional area of skill on the Wechsler Scales. Combining the two, 37 per cent of the sample showed either savant skills or unusual cognitive skills or both, a far higher proportion than previously reported. These results suggest that the rates of savant skills in autism are significant, particularly among males, and although these estimates are higher than reported by other researchers, the findings parallel those of previous studies. Based on these findings, it appears likely that at least a third of individuals with autism show unusual skills or talents that are both above population norms and above their own overall level of cognitive functioning. However, these data offer no support to claims that savant skills occur most frequently in individuals with autism who are intellectually impaired or that individuals with higher rates of stereotyped behaviors/interests were more likely to demonstrate savant skills.
Apart from the need for further research examining the underlying basis of savant skills and why certain individuals go on to develop any area of exceptional skill and why these skills encompass such different areas, there is a more practical and pressing question; “how can these innate talents be developed to form the basis of truly ‘functional’ skills?” In the present study, only five individuals with exceptional abilities (four related to math and one related to visuospatial ability) had succeeded in using these skills to find permanent employment. For the majority, the isolated skill remained just that, leading neither to employment nor greater social integration. As the authors conclude, “The practical challenge now is to determine how individuals with special skills can be assisted, from childhood onward, to develop their talents in ways that are of direct practical value (in terms of educational and occupational achievements), thereby enhancing their opportunities for social inclusion as adults.”
Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., & Rutter, M. (2009). Savant skills in autism: Psychometric approaches and parental reportsPhil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 364, 1359–1367.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Dr. Wilkinson is also editor of a recent volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.

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