DSM-5: Autism Diagnostic Criteria Explained

June 21, 2024

Demystify autism diagnostic criteria (DSM-5) & understand severity levels for better self-awareness.

Understanding Autism Spectrum

Autism is a complex developmental disorder that affects an individual's ability to communicate and interact with others. Understanding the autism spectrum and how diagnoses are made can provide a clearer picture of this condition. The main reference for diagnosing mental disorders in the United States, including autism, is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The current version, DSM-5, and its recent text revision, DSM-5-TR, provide the framework for understanding the diagnosis of autism.

DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) released the fifth edition of DSM (DSM-5) in 2013. According to DSM-5, an autism diagnosis requires persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts [1]. This includes difficulties in social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communication behaviors, and developing and maintaining relationships. Additionally, the DSM-5 criteria for autism include restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. These criteria are designed to provide a comprehensive overview of the behaviors typically associated with autism. However, it's crucial to remember that autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that individuals may exhibit these behaviors in varying degrees. For more information on autism diagnosis, refer to our article on who is qualified to diagnose autism in adults.

Evolution to DSM-5-TR

The APA continually works to refine and update the DSM to reflect the latest research and understanding of mental disorders. In 2022, the APA released the DSM-5-TR, a text revision to the DSM-5. This revision included a clarification to the autism diagnostic criteria. Specifically, the phrase "manifested by the following" was revised to read "as manifested by all of the following" to improve the intent and clarity of the wording. This change underscores the comprehensive nature of the autism diagnosis, considering multiple facets of an individual's behavior and experiences. As we await the dsm 6 release date, it's important to stay informed about these changes and how they may affect individuals with autism and their families.

In understanding the autism diagnostic criteria, individuals can better navigate their own experiences or support loved ones on the autism spectrum. It's always beneficial to seek professional advice when considering a diagnosis, and to remember that each individual's journey with autism is unique. For more insight into the implications of an autism diagnosis, refer to our articles on is autism overdiagnosed? and is it worth getting an autism diagnosis?.

Early Developmental Period

A significant aspect of the autism diagnostic criteria (DSM-5) is the emphasis on symptoms' presence in the early developmental period. In this section, we'll discuss the delayed manifestation of these symptoms and the possibility of masking symptoms in later life.

Delayed Manifestation

As per the Autism Speaks guidelines, symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) should be present in the early developmental stage. However, these may not become fully manifest or evident until social demands exceed the individual's limited capacities. This means that while the symptoms are present from an early age, they might not be noticeable or may be overlooked until the person faces social situations that highlight their difficulties. This delay in manifestation can sometimes lead to late diagnoses, particularly in individuals who may have shown early signs but whose symptoms became clear only later in life [2].

Masking Symptoms

In some cases, symptoms of ASD may be masked by learned strategies in later life. Individuals with ASD often develop coping mechanisms and strategies to navigate social interactions, which can mask their symptoms. For instance, they might learn to mimic social cues or avoid situations that they find challenging. This can make it more difficult to diagnose ASD, particularly in adults [3].

According to a study published by NCBI, children who met DSM-IV-TR (the previous version of the diagnostic manual) criteria for autistic disorder but not the DSM-5 ASD were more likely to have mild ASD symptoms, or symptoms accounted for by another disorder.

Understanding these aspects of early developmental manifestations and the possibility of masking symptoms is crucial in diagnosing and supporting individuals with ASD. It underscores the importance of thorough assessments and taking into account both current and past functioning in the diagnostic process.

Impairments and Functioning

Understanding the impacts and functional aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is crucial for appropriate diagnosis and treatment. These aspects, as per the 'autism diagnostic criteria (DSM-5)', touch upon social and occupational impacts, as well as the definition of ASD levels.

Social and Occupational Impact

Symptoms of ASD can lead to clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning. These impairments are often persistent and can affect an individual's ability to interact, communicate, and function effectively in different areas of life.

Some individuals may face difficulties with social interactions, which can impact their ability to form and maintain relationships. Others might experience challenges in their occupational lives, potentially affecting their job performance and career progression. Considering these impacts can help in understanding whether it's worth getting an autism diagnosis.

Defining ASD Levels

The DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing ASD, apart from looking at deficits in social communication and interactions, also introduced a severity rating system. This system allows clinicians to identify levels of severity for each individual, providing a more detailed and personalized diagnosis.

The three levels of severity are:

  1. Level 1 (Requiring Support): Individuals at this level may struggle with social situations and might need some support to manage their daily routines and tasks.
  2. Level 2 (Requiring Substantial Support): At this level, individuals may have significant difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, requiring substantial support to navigate their day-to-day lives.
  3. Level 3 (Requiring Very Substantial Support): Individuals at this level may have severe difficulties in understanding and responding to social cues, requiring very substantial support.

These levels provide a framework to guide treatment plans and support systems, tailored to the specific needs of each individual. For more information on who is qualified to diagnose autism in adults, you can visit this page.

By understanding the social and occupational impacts, as well as classifications of severity, we can better understand the functional aspects of ASD. This knowledge can aid in the accurate diagnosis and effective management of the disorder, taking us a step closer towards more personalized and effective treatments.

Severity Classifications

The proposed DSM-5 autism spectrum criteria puts forth three severity classifications as a means to measure the degree of impairment in individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These classifications are based on the degree of support required by the individual and are categorized into Level 1 (Requiring Support), Level 2 (Requiring Substantial Support), and Level 3 (Requiring Very Substantial Support).

These are further split across two core ASD symptom domains: Social Communication (SC) and Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors (RRB) [4].

Level 1: Requiring Support

Individuals classified under Level 1 demonstrate difficulties in social communication and may exhibit inflexible behaviors that interfere with functioning in different contexts. They may face challenges in initiating social interactions and may show atypical responses in social situations.

While they can manage daily life with some support, their symptoms may be noticeable to the casual observer. They may require some level of support to complete tasks and interact effectively with others.

Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support

At Level 2, individuals show more severe social communication deficits and may demonstrate repetitive behaviors that are clearly observable by others. They may have difficulty changing activities or focus and may struggle with adapting to changes in their environment.

These individuals usually require substantial support in their daily life. They may face significant challenges in understanding and responding to social cues, which can lead to decreased independence and difficulty in maintaining relationships.

Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support

Level 3 is characterized by severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills that cause severe impairments in functioning. These individuals may exhibit very limited initiation of social interactions and minimal response to social overtures from others.

In addition, they may show extreme difficulty coping with changes, leading to repetitive behaviors that interfere significantly with functioning in multiple contexts. They require very substantial support to carry out daily activities and to manage the challenges associated with their symptoms.

It's important to note that these severity levels provide a framework for understanding the needs of individuals with ASD, but they do not definitively predict the individual's ability to function in all areas of life. Each individual with ASD is unique and the severity of their symptoms can vary widely.

The severity classifications within the autism diagnostic criteria (DSM-5) provide a useful tool for clinicians and families to understand and address the support needs of individuals with ASD [2]. For further understanding of the diagnosis process, you can read about who is qualified to diagnose autism in adults and consider is it worth getting an autism diagnosis?.

Diagnosis Challenges

While the DSM-5 has greatly improved our understanding and categorization of autism, there are still significant challenges that complicate the diagnosis process. Two of the most prominent issues are discrepancies in severity and the classification of support levels.

Discrepancies in Severity

A key aspect of the DSM-5's approach to autism is the inclusion of a "severity" marker, which is intended to reflect the degree of impairment. However, the methods for differentiating between severity levels are not clearly defined, which can lead to inconsistencies in diagnoses.

Such discrepancies can have significant implications for the services and supports that individuals with autism receive. For instance, someone who is categorized as needing a higher level of support may not receive the resources they need if their severity level is underestimated. On the other hand, overestimation could lead to unnecessary interventions and treatments. This issue is further complicated by the lack of alignment between the DSM-5, ADOS-2, and other common diagnostic criteria [4].

In fact, a study found that 34.1% of subjects previously diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) under the DSM-IV did not meet the DSM-5 criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Among these individuals, nearly half had previously been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder under the DSM-IV [5]. This highlights the potential for significant discrepancies between the DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. For more information on this topic, you can read our article on is autism overdiagnosed?.

Classifying Support Levels

Another major challenge in diagnosing autism is determining the level of support an individual needs. The DSM-5 proposes three levels of support—mild, moderate, and significant—but does not provide a clear method for classifying individuals into these categories.

This lack of clarity can lead to inconsistencies in diagnoses and support plans. For instance, an individual's autism symptoms, cognitive skills, and adaptive functioning may not align neatly with a single support level. This can make it difficult for clinicians to determine the most appropriate level of support for each individual.

The issue of classifying support levels underscores the need for more detailed and standardized guidelines in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. While the DSM-5 has made significant strides in improving our understanding of autism, these challenges highlight areas where further refinement is needed. For more information on the challenges and considerations involved in diagnosing autism, check out our articles on who is qualified to diagnose autism in adults and is it worth getting an autism diagnosis?.

Diagnostic Tools and Assessments

There are numerous diagnostic tools and assessments available to aid in identifying Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These tools can help to pinpoint the specific symptoms and behaviors that align with the autism diagnostic criteria (DSM-5). This section will explore two such tools - the AIIMS Modified INDT-ASD Tool and the comparison between ADOS-2 and CARS-2.

AIIMS Modified INDT-ASD Tool

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) took a step forward in diagnosing ASD in children by developing and validating the DSM-5 based AIIMS-Modified-INDT-ASD Tool. The tool demonstrated a sensitivity of 98.4% and specificity of 91.7% to diagnose ASD, with a score of ≥14 suggesting severe ASD.

Moreover, the AIIMS Modified INDT-ASD Tool had a false positivity rate of 8.2% and a false negative rate of 1.55%. It demonstrated a sensitivity and specificity of 92.97% and 92.98% respectively when the score was ≥10, and it could diagnose severe ASD with a sensitivity and specificity of 80% each when the score was ≥14.

A strong indicator of its reliability is that it showed a good correlation with the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) score, with a Pearson correlation of 0.76. It was developed to incorporate DSM-5 criteria for ASD diagnosis, replacing the previous DSM-IV based tool. The aim was to provide a simple, structured, and physician-administered instrument for diagnosing ASD with acceptable diagnostic accuracy.

ADOS-2 and CARS-2 Comparison

The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) and Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS-2) are two comprehensive tools that are often used in tandem to diagnose autism [7].

The ADOS-2 is a semi-structured assessment tool widely used for diagnosing autism. It involves direct observation of an individual’s behavior and social interactions. It consists of various activities and prompts that allow clinicians to assess the individual’s communication skills, social behaviors, and imaginative play.

The CARS-2, on the other hand, is a behavioral rating scale used to assess the presence and severity of autism symptoms in children. It involves an evaluation of the child’s behavior in various domains, including social interactions, communication, and repetitive behaviors. The CARS-2 provides a systematic framework for professionals to assess and quantify the presence of autistic features.

Both tools are instrumental in diagnosing ASD, and their use in conjunction can provide a more comprehensive understanding of an individual's symptoms. Understanding these tools and their applicability in diagnosing ASD can be beneficial for both individuals with autism and their caregivers, especially when navigating the complexities of diagnosing autism in adults.


[1]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/autism-diagnostic-criteria-dsm-5

[2]: https://www.research.chop.edu/car-autism-roadmap/diagnostic-criteria-for-autism-spectrum-disorder-in-the-dsm-5

[3]: /who-is-qualified-to-diagnose-autism-in-adults

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3989992/

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7289465/

[6]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6415840/

[7]: https://quenza.com/blog/knowledge-base/psychological-assessment-tools-for-autism/

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