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Defining Autism

May 14, 2012, 6:06 PM by Casey Wonnenberg

Defining Autism

A proposed change in how autism is defined has some advocates worried children diagnosed with autism will fall through the cracks and lose out on services.  Others say it will better define the condition and slow the rapidly-increasing rate of autism.

Meredith and Nathalie Ollerich enjoy playing together and are like most sisters.

"Sometimes we get into who gets what if we go to the store," Meredith said.

But the two have more struggles than just who gets to play the drums or eat candy.

"Some people think I'm different just because I have an autistic sister and they don't include me just because I have a disabled sister," Meredith said.

Doctors diagnosed Nathalie with autism soon after her first birthday.

"She had no eye contact, but she had the quiet and to herself. She wouldn't turn her head when you called her name out. She would line things up as colors and shapes, in odd groups and things like that," mother Stephanie Ollerich said.

But you may not recognize that her older sister also has the disorder and was also diagnosed with Autism when she was a baby.  She's made great strides and is now a straight-A student. In fact, Meredith no longer receives services related to autism.

Stephanie credits her older daughter's improvement to getting help early.  But she worries the proposed changes in autism guidelines could mean others might not be so lucky.

"I feel very compassionate for the children who aren't as cut and dry with the guidelines. They may not qualify because of one certain little thing because it's really too bad because they need that extra help," Stephanie said.

"Utilizing the new criteria, there is nothing that specifies an individual who may be higher functioning, such as somebody with Asperger's.  There are some concerns that those individuals may not meet the diagnostic criteria as it's proposed."  Dr. Eric Kurtz said.  He's the Director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Program at USD Sanford School of Medicine.

Still, Ollerich admits she's not sure whether changing the guidelines is necessarily a bad idea because of the rapid rise in autism cases.

"Sometimes I wonder, is it because they're coming up with different guidelines where children are being diagnosed? Or is there really some type of epidemic that's happening that we don't know about or things that we can't figure out why it's happening?" Stephanie said.

Whatever the answer, Meredith says she doesn't need a definition to know her sister is one of her best friends.

"It feels pretty good because I feel unique that I have a sister like her," Meredith said.

The American Psychiatric Association plans to officially release the new autism guidelines in one year. The public can still comment on the proposed change which is scheduled to take effect next May.

The public can comment through the American Psychiatric Association's website.

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