New Autism Classification Focuses on Kids' Strengths, Not Deficits

Going well beyond the simple labels of “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” when describing children with autism, a group of researchers has developed an autism classification system that more specifically defines a child’s level of social communications ability.

The system, called the Autism Classification System of Functioning: Social Communication or ACSF:SC, will allow the child’s care team to better understand where a child falls in the communication spectrum. And rather than focusing on the child’s level of disability, it focuses on what the child can do.

“This is not a test, but more like describing the colors of a rainbow,” said researcher Dr. Briano Di Rezze, a scientist with CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research at McMaster University.

“Currently we hear terms like ‘high-functioning’ or ‘low-functioning’ to describe children with ASD. However there is no common interpretation of what those terms mean, which makes them unreliable because clinicians, therapists, and parents aren’t using them in the same way,” said Di Rezze, lead author for the paper published in the international journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.

Led by CanChild, the system was developed by a team of senior researchers and clinicians and then tested by parents and professionals across the United States. The tool offers a standardized and simplified way for clinicians, therapists, teachers, and parents to discuss a child’s social communication abilities from the standpoint of what the child can do rather than what they cannot.

Simplified, the assessment tool for preschool children uses word pictures that describe five levels of social communication and can determine a child’s ability within two conditions: when they are performing at their best, known as their capacity, and what they do on a regular basis, known as their typical performance.

Over the past two decades, CanChild researchers and their colleagues in Sweden and the U.S. have created several functional classifications systems. The first and most well-known of these systems is the Gross Motor Function Classification System (GMFCS) for children with cerebral palsy, a tool that is now used worldwide in more than 40 languages.

The new autism classification system has the potential to be as influential as the GMFCS, said Dr. Peter Rosenbaum, one of the original developers of the GMFCS, co-founder of CanChild and a professor of developmental pediatrics at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

“We hope that the ACSF:SC has the same transformative impact in the field of autism as the GMFCS has been reported to have in the field of cerebral palsy. Its applicability in communication with families, and in clinical services, research, and policy-making, will be very exciting.”

Source: McMaster University