On November 29, Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, stated this in his testimony to the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform,It’s Time for a National Autism Strategy … to address the $137 billion per year cost of autism. The status quo isn’t working. It is time we commit to a comprehensive national strategy for autism.”

However, ignorance of autism is a major obstacle challenging the status quo. It’s not just the government that needs to be involved; it must be a universal endeavor.

I almost cheered when I read “Autism can be an advantage, says researcher,” on NBCnews.com. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal said, “By seeing autism’s differences as defects, researchers may fail to fully understand the condition.”

Through my son Erik, I have first-hand experience of Mottron’s assertion. Individuals with autism receive and process information differently, but that doesn’t mean they are deficient, incapable or ignorant. It just means they process and respond differently.

The unfortunate result is those with autism face challenges finding jobs, communicating with and being accepted by mainstream society. As Wright says, “The majority of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, a tragic waste of potential.” But, given a safe environment and an opportunity to express their strengths, they can thrive.

A recent New York Times magazine article features Specialisterne, a company based on the tenets that, “given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.”

Specialisterne has appeared in this blog previously. Currently, the company concentrates on technology jobs. However, not everyone with autism excels in technology. Erik’s Ranch & Retreats focuses on what individuals with autism can do—not what they can’t—and builds on those skills. Both models are viable and promote self-sufficiency among a misunderstood population. Recognizing autism as an advantage and thinking outside the status quo is what will move us beyond it.

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At the end of November, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) approved eliminating Asperger syndrome from the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Instead, the disorder has been absorbed into the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

David Kupfer, MD, chair of the task force revising DSM-V and psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says the change aims to ensure that affected children and adults receive a more accurate diagnosis for the most appropriate treatment.

Because the DSM is the authority by which providers and insurers make treatment and service decisions, uppermost in the minds of members of the autism community is how this change will affect services. That question forms the basis for a letter from Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science officer, Autism Speaks to the APA. She urges open-minded, ongoing review of six pertinent points before committing to this decision.

Fred R. Volkmar, MD, director of the Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, resigned from the DSM-V task force earlier this year because he opposed the change. He says, “The new definition will end the skyrocketing autism rates … But at what cost? The major impact here is on the more cognitively able.”

On the other hand, others, including Sally Ozonoff, PhD, professor of psychiatry at University of California Davis, support the new diagnosis believing it will expand services and improve therapy. She wasn’t involved in redefining Asperger syndrome, but she wrote in an email to the New York Times, “… I can state that the intentions of that group, and of most professionals in the field, would not be to exclude anyone from services or to tighten criteria to reduce the number of diagnoses.”

This is a hot topic and will continue to be one until there are tangible results for comparison. As Dawson admonishes in her letter to the APA, “It is crucial that the impact of the proposed changes be closely monitored and assessed.” Only time will reveal whether the new definition is a benefit or a detriment.

Share your thoughts about absorbing Asperger syndrome into autism spectrum