What are the Changes to the Diagnosis of Autism with the DSM-V?

The first change with the new edition of the DSM is to combine the formerly separate diagnoses of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not-otherwise-specified into one group with the name of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The stated reason for this was that of reliability and validity. That is, the DSM IV could, to the satisfaction of the committee, distinguish individuals with autism from typically developing individuals. Further, the committee stated that because autism is described by a common set of behaviors that it is best represented as a single disorder. Finally, the committee stated that a single spectrum disorder represents the current state of knowledge regarding the disorder and how it appears clinically to clinicians.

The second change is the combining of the three domains that appeared in DSM-IV (Qualitative impairments in social interaction, Qualitative impairments in communication, and restricted repetitive stereotyped patterns of behavior) into two domains (Social Communication Deficits and Fixed Interests and Repetitive Behaviors). The following rationale were provided: 1) deficits in communication and social behaviors are inseparable and; 2) delays in language are neither unique to autism (i.e., they appear in other disorders), nor are they universal (i.e., not all individuals with autism have them); 3) The changes improved specificity of the diagnosis while not compromising the sensitivity; 4) Increased sensitivity across severity levels of autism; 5) Secondary analyses of data sets support the combination of categories.

The third change is a change in the criteria within the social/communication domain were merged and streamlined to clarify diagnostic requirements. The following rationale was provided. In the previous version of the DSM several criteria measured the same symptom thus giving greater importance to that symptom (social/communication) and the merging of these criteria requires a new approach to them. Secondary data analyses were conducted to determine the most sensitive and specific symptom clusters to facilitate diagnosis for a range of ages and language levels.

Next, there is a new requirement of two symptoms from repetitive behavior and fixated interests be identified. It was also proposed that this change will increase specificity while not decreasing sensitivity. In addition, there is a requirement for multiple sources of information (clinical observations and parent/caregiver report).

These changes represent the current iteration of the DSM-V diagnosis of autism.

When You Start an ABA program, What Should You Reasonably Expect from Your Service Provider?

The following are things that you should expect as a parent when you begin treatment for your child with Autism.

You and your child have a right to a therapeutic environment.  This means that the teaching environment set up to help your child is one in which socially significant learning occurs.  As a client, your child also has the right to services from an agency in which their number one goal is the personal welfare of your child (e.g., safety, treatment efficacy, advocacy). This means that all energy put into the program is to help your child become more independent and lead a better life.

It is also your child’s right to have a treatment program supervised by a competent behavior analyst. Unfortunately, as the rates of autism have increased, so have the number of treatment programs allegedly providing assistance to children with autism.  Furthermore, in many locations, the demand presently outweighs the supply for trained, experienced behavior analysts. It is imperative that the credentials and qualifications of your service provider be credible.

Your child has a right to be provided with a program that teaches functional skills. Functional skills are skills that a child can use in their everyday life and that furthers their independence (tying shoes, initiating conversation, engaging in cooperative play, etc.). There is little benefit in taking the time and dedication to teach a child something that cannot be incorporated or used in their everyday life.

Assessment and ongoing evaluation are crucial components of any ABA program, and should be expected.  This includes setting up a program based on the individual needs of a child and continuing a program based on the ongoing needs of a child. These needs will continually change, therefore ongoing assessments and modifications are imperative, necessary, and a right.

Parent and caregiver trainings should be included in the ABA program. These typically include meetings between parents or caregivers and their service provider in which valuable ABA strategies are discussed, demonstrated, and implemented. The focus of these meetings is to educate parents about various but individualized ABA based techniques they can implement with their child to address challenging behaviors, reinforce desirable behaviors, and promote generalization of progress.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a child with autism has the right to the most effective treatment procedures available. In this case – scientifically validated treatment programs which today have only been shown to be based on ABA principles and techniques.

Parent Tips To Determining Why Behavior Problems Happen

A helpful way to effectively tackle a child’s problem behavior is to figure out why it is happening in the first place.  To implement an intervention without this important information may produce no results or even make the challenging behavior far worse than it was before implementing the tactic you’ve chosen.

To figure out a behavior’s possible function, first we have to look at the antecedent—whatever it is that happened right before the behavior. And secondly, we also have to pay attention to the consequence that happens while or after the behavior happened.  This relationship between antecedent àbehavior ß consequence over time may contribute to why a child does the problem behavior.

There are four likely reason “why” a behavior may happen: for access, to escape/avoid, for attention, and for self-stimulation.

  1. Access

A problem behavior can be strengthened or reinforced when it produces a consequence that increases the chance of the problem behavior from happening again over time.

Example

A child is told he cannot have his tablet to play video games on which results in the child engaging in tantrum behaviors.  The parent does not want to deal with the tantrums so the child is given the tablet.  In this example, tantrums after being told “NO, you can’t have ____” resulted in the child getting what he cannot have.

A B C
Told no tablet/video games Tantrums Got tablet video games

 

  1. Escape/Avoidance

A problem behavior can be strengthened or reinforced when it produces a removal of something a person does not like (Escape).  The same strengthening of the behavior may also happen if the behavior prevents something that a person does not like from happening at all (Avoidance). Providing the behavior with either consequence may strengthen the behavior over time.

Example 1 (Escape)

A child is asked by his parent if there is homework for the day.  The child says yes and with her parent, starts working on the homework.  As the work becomes more difficult, the child starts complaining to the parent.  The parent instructs the child to continue working, but the child just continues complaining and eventually starts throwing pencils towards the wall. Unsure about what to do, the parent takes the homework off the table and tells the child that she doesn’t need to work on it anymore.

A B C
Instruction to continue with school-work Continual complaints, throwing pencil at wall School-work removed

 

Example 2 (Avoidance)

Upon getting home, the parent asks the child if there is homework for the day.  The child replies, “No homework today, yay!”  There is homework for that day.

A B C
Parent asks about homework Lies about having no homework Homework avoided
  1. Attention

A problem behavior can be strengthened or reinforced when it produces any response from another person that leads to the likelihood on the problem behavior from happening again over time.

Example

A family is having dinner at the table.  The elder child starts playing with her food and manages to flick a pea from her plate across the table with her fork.  The younger child starts laughing at his sibling being funny.  The elder child then repeats the behavior which makes the younger child laugh hysterically.  The parent asks the elder child to stop, but to no avail—peas scattered all over the dining table.

A B C
Other people at the table Flicking pea across the table (elder child) Younger child laughing

 

  1. Self-stimulatory

A problem behavior can also be reinforced automatically by the pleasant sensations the action produces. Parents can have an idea if a problem behavior may function for self-stimulation if the child performs the behavior regardless whether the child is around individuals or—and most especially—if the child is all alone.

Example

A child watching a video on her tablet “rewinds” the video to a specific scene, watches the clip for a few seconds, then rewinds the video once again to watch the same scene.  This chain of behaviors may repeat for an indefinite length of time.

A B C
End of favorite clip (and “desire” to watch again Rewinds video to the beginning of favorite scene Watching favorite scene again

Although there are now many tools that we can use to figure out the specific function of a behavior, parents and caregivers can still use A-B-C data analysis to help them find out the function(s) of a problem behavior to help determine the best tactic to use in addressing the behavioral difficulty.   For complex or intense problem behaviors that can pose a hazard to a child’s and others’ safety, it is highly advised that parents/caregiver seek assistance from a qualified behavior analyst.