“Intellectual disability” would replace “mental retardation” and Asperger’s syndrome would be folded into “autism spectrum disorders” under proposed changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders unveiled Wednesday.

The recommendations are among several sweeping changes psychiatric experts are calling for in the forthcoming fifth edition of the manual known as the DSM, which is expected in May 2013. The DSM serves as the bible for mental health professionals, researchers and insurers as it determines what symptoms are worthy of an official diagnosis. The current edition was released in 1994.

The American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the DSM, is accepting public comment on the proposed changes until April 20 online.

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Experts recommend in the draft manual that the term “mental retardation” be eliminated in favor of “intellectual disability,” bringing medical terminology in line with language already used by many governmental and educational institutions. The diagnosis would also gain a broader definition, by encompassing adaptive functioning in addition to IQ .

What’s more, experts say that autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified should be combined under the umbrella term “autism spectrum disorders,” with diagnosticians indicating a level of severity.

Changes to the autism diagnoses were long expected to be considered in the DSM revision, and anticipation alone stirred significant debate. Many with the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome said the possibility of eliminating the term which is widely recognized both in popular culture and among health care and educational providers would mean losing a sense of identity.

Nonetheless, the working group recommending the change determined that an umbrella term would bring clarity.

“The recommendation of a new category of autism spectrum disorders reflects recognition by the work group that the symptoms of these disorders represent a continuum from mild to severe, rather than being distinct disorders,” said Dr. Edwin Cook, a member of the committee. “We expect that the proposed changes will improve the sensitivity and specificity of the criteria for autism spectrum disorders, so that clinicians may be able to more accurately diagnose these disorders.”

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