Asperger's Syndrome Is No Longer an Official Diagnosis

Asperger's syndrome existed as a distinct category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) from 1994 to 2013. Once considered one of five pervasive developmental disorders, Asperger's was folded into one general category for autism spectrum disorders in 2013 due to inconsistencies in the diagnostic criteria.

As such, U.S. practitioners can no longer officially diagnose someone with Asperger's syndrome. Anyone who was given that diagnosis prior to 2013 is now considered to have autism spectrum disorder.

History of the Asperger's Diagnosis

Asperger's syndrome, first named by Hans Asperger in the 1940s and placed in the DSM-IV in 1987, came to have significant meaning for a lot of people across the United States and around the world. Made famous by the Wired magazine article “The Geek Syndrome,” it came to describe people who are:

  • Quirky
  • Anxious
  • Creative
  • Socially challenged

Asperger's was differentiated from severe forms of autism due to these characteristics. And while severe autism once went by other names (autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder), it is now grouped under autism spectrum disorders as well.

Levels of Autism Spectrum Disorders

The change to the DSM entry for Asperger's is somewhat controversial, as people with severe symptoms of autism (e.g., non-verbal, intellectually challenged, and in need of significant daily support for basic life skills) have the same name for their diagnosis as those with autism who are, say, completing graduate school but having a difficult time relating to peers or managing loud parties.

To clarify the differences in these cases and alleviate confusion, the new definition of autism describes people as having a severity level between one and three, based on how much support they need.

This, among many things, is thought to give clinicians and others a better sense of a person's ability to communicate, adapt, and care for themself.

Virtually everyone with a prior Asperger's syndrome diagnosis qualifies for a level 1 diagnosis, defined as “in need of a relatively low level of support.” Individuals presenting for the first time with relatively mild symptoms of autism will receive a first-time diagnosis of level 1 autism spectrum disorder as well, though this may be reassessed over time.

Why Some Still Use the Term "Asperger's"

A 2017 study, which analyzed the effects of the decision four years after it was made, found that moving Asperger's under the autism umbrella still "has the potential to threaten the identity of those affected," citing autism as a stigmatizing diagnostic label.

While the official DSM, which is under the authority of the American Psychiatric Association, does not include Asperger's syndrome, some countries still used the diagnosis after the DSM change—and many people still use the term today.

For example, some advocacy groups and organizations continue to use the term to describe the group of people they serve. This may be for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that some people specifically identify as having Asperger's, not autism.

Medical consensus continues to move away from the Asperger's diagnosis, however. Following the DSM's lead, the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) has moved Asperger's syndrome under the autism spectrum disorder umbrella.

ICD-11 takes effect on January 1, 2022, and will be used by all World Health Organization member states.

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