Monday 20 March 2023

The ICD-11 diagnostic criteria for autism: criteria that actually gets it right?

I'd love to say that this post represents me getting back into autism research blogging but alas, I'm not sure I'd be able to stick to any sort of routine or plan. Work, family, karate, so many Star Wars spin-offs to watch, you know what it's like. Suffice to say that something important brought me back to making this entry: the ICD-11 criteria for autism (see here). 

So why blog about it? Well simply because I reckon that this latest version of one of the major ways that autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is diagnosed is basically as good as we've ever got at defining autism and the various nuances around an autism diagnosis. 

Why? Lots of reasons, and I would invite as many people as possible to survey the criteria which is free for all to read. For me, it's as follows:

1. Autism, the catch-all diagnosis, is now not just singular autism, it's more. Much more. The criteria still consists of the timeless social communication issues (social affect as it was once called) and "persistent restricted, repetitive, and inflexible patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities." It's still talks about early onset (although the 'before 3 years of age' bit is long gone as in previous versions). Importantly it still talks about symptoms resulting in "significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning." This last point is often not as well remembered as it should be, particularly in certain social media circles. But more than all that we now have separate diagnostic sub-codings for things like the presence of intellectual (learning) disability and functional language impairment in a sort of pick-and-mix matrices combination. The DSM-5 also tried this with their 'levels of support' or, dare I say it 'severity levels' (see here). Allied to all that is another sub-coding: loss of previously acquired skills. Y'know, all those reports of regression or plateau in skills that parents and caregivers talked about? They've been taken seriously and at last, now feature as part of the diagnostic work-up. Minus any 'I told you so' sentiments, we've already published on this a few years back (see here). The road has been long. Wow.

2. Alongside the core clinical features are quite a few other headings covering other types of behaviour that one may see accompanying autism. Anxiety, seizures and here's one: self-injurious behaviours (SIB). No it doesn't make for great reading (SIB can be absolutely devastating to the person concerned and their family) but at last, acknowledgement that it's an issue for some. There's also talk about other comorbidities / multi-morbidities (that's comorbidity not co-occurrence) to look out for. Some psychiatric, some behavioural and some somatic. Get ready for another 'I told you so' moment (see here). 

3. Standby for something really important included in the ICD-11 criteria: a list of some 18 other conditions where autistic signs and symptoms can significantly present is also provided. This is new. The list ranges from things like ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) to schizophrenia to personality disorder(s). Developmental coordination disorder (DCD) aka dyspraxia is also in there and acknowledges something that even the great Leo Kanner talked about. This will help clinicians (yes, the people who conduct formal autism assessments) no end. It means that they should also be on the look out for various other conditions when they make their assessments (indeed, if any of those listed overlapping conditions are also present in clinic, it might mean looking for autism too). I'll also, at this point, add in the almost forgotten issue of social (pragmatic) communication disorder (SCD) from the DSM-5 too. I'm also interested in that list of overlapping conditions because they seem to becoming more and more important to autism. Take schizophrenia for example. Did you know that an estimated 1 in 10 people with autism might be at risk of transitioning over to schizophrenia over a 10 year period according to this study from 'big data Taiwan'? And more recently we've seen research all about ADHD 'transitioning' into ASD as a primary diagnosis (see here); prodromal period anyone? Oh, and I should also mention that the word 'encephalitis' figures in those boundary conditions. I'd like to think this would trigger a lot more discussion and study on how immune system / inflammatory conditions *might* play a role in at least some autism. I say this on the back of our recent-ish review of autoimmune encephalitis and autism (see here) and my continuing interest in such things.

So there you have it citizens (hat-tip to the late great Christopher Plummer!), the ICD-11 diagnostic criteria for autism. Obviously we'll have to see where it all goes, but certainly, as the criteria beds in, diagnostic reports will get more and more detailed which has to be a boon for things like EHCPs (Education, Health and Care Plans) and getting things right for people (particularly children) when diagnosed. As for research, well, that will benefit too, given the more detailed diagnostic starting point other than just 'autism vs. non-autistic controls'. I reckon we're going to be seeing more and more objective biological markers in the coming years. One more thing: you've no doubt heard about the term 'profound autism'? Well, it looks like ICD-11, like DSM-5, is going to forward this concept a lot more in times to come. 

Peace be with you.


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