One of the most important changes in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (DSM-5) is to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The revised diagnosis represents a new,
more accurate, and medically and scientifically useful way of diagnosing individuals with autism-related
Using DSM-IV, patients could be diagnosed with four separate disorders: autistic disorder, Asperger’s
disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, or the catch-all diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder
not otherwise specified. Researchers found that these separate diagnoses were not consistently
applied across different clinics and treatment centers. Anyone diagnosed with one of the four pervasive
developmental disorders (PDD) from DSM-IV should still meet the criteria for ASD in DSM-5 or another,
more accurate DSM-5 diagnosis. While DSM does not outline recommended treatment and services for
mental disorders, determining an accurate diagnosis is a first step for a clinician in defining a treatment
plan for a patient.
The Neurodevelopmental Work Group, led by Susan Swedo, MD, senior investigator at the National
Institute of Mental Health, recommended the DSM-5 criteria for ASD to be a better reflection of the
state of knowledge about autism. The Work Group believes a single umbrella disorder will improve the
diagnosis of ASD without limiting the sensitivity of the criteria, or substantially changing the number of
children being diagnosed.
People with ASD tend to have communication deficits, such as responding inappropriately in conversations,
misreading nonverbal interactions, or having difficulty building friendships appropriate to their
age. In addition, people with ASD may be overly dependent on routines, highly sensitive to changes in
their environment, or intensely focused on inappropriate items. Again, the symptoms of people with
ASD will fall on a continuum, with some individuals showing mild symptoms and others having much
more severe symptoms. This spectrum will allow clinicians to account for the variations in symptoms
and behaviors from person to person.
Under the DSM-5 criteria, individuals with ASD must show symptoms from early childhood, even if
those symptoms are not recognized until later. This criteria change encourages earlier diagnosis of ASD
but also allows people whose symptoms may not be fully recognized until social demands exceed their
capacity to receive the diagnosis. It is an important change from DSM-IV criteria, which was geared
toward identifying school-aged children with autism-related disorders, but not as useful in diagnosing
The DSM-5 criteria were tested in real-life clinical settings as part of DSM-5 field trials, and analysis
from that testing indicated that there will be no significant changes in the prevalence of the disorder.
More recently, the largest and most up-to-date study, published by Huerta, et al, in the October 2012
issue of American Journal of Psychiatry, provided the most comprehensive assessment of the DSM-5
criteria for ASD based on symptom extraction from previously collected data. The study found that
DSM-5 criteria identified 91 percent of children with clinical DSM-IV PDD diagnoses, suggesting that
DSM-5 Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet
most children with DSM-IV PDD diagnoses will retain their diagnosis of ASD using the new criteria. Several
other studies, using various methodologies, have been inconsistent in their findings.