(Updated: January 20, 2012 at 4:23 PM CT)

Many currently diagnosed with autism could lose the label if proposed changes to the definition of the developmental disorder go through as planned, a new analysis suggests.

The American Psychiatric Association is currently working to revise the definition of autism that will be included in the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which is expected in May 2013.

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The manual is used by mental health professionals, researchers and insurers alike to determine what symptoms are worthy of an official diagnosis.

Proposed changes call for related disorders like Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified to be folded into an umbrella diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder.” Moreover, individuals would have to meet a more specific set of criteria to obtain the new diagnosis.

Now, The New York Times reports that according to a new analysis the changes could dramatically reduce the number of people who qualify as autistic, potentially stripping the label from some who currently have it and halting the rapid rise in autism prevalence seen in recent years.

“The proposed changes would put an end to the autism epidemic,” the author of the analysis, Fred R. Volkmar, director of the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine, told The Times.

That has many in the autism community concerned about what could happen, especially to those on the high functioning end of the spectrum. They worry that without an autism diagnosis, individuals could also lose access to supports and services.

“Not only will tens of thousands of spectrumites — if not more — be at risk for going back to the days when we were thought of as rude, nervous, or incompetent; but equal numbers of spectrumites will happily be denied the services they need by financially-strapped agencies,” wrote Michael John Carley, executive director of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership, in an email to supporters asking them to call the psychiatric association to oppose the proposed changes.

Experts working to develop the new DSM definition are sharply refuting the new analysis, however. They pointed out to The Times that the report relies on data collected in 1993 and said that other estimates have indicated the changes would affect far fewer people.

In a statement released late Friday, the American Psychiatric Association said field tests of the proposed changes indicate that there will be no variation in the number of individuals treated for autism should the revisions go into effect.

“The proposed criteria will lead to more accurate diagnosis and will help physicians and therapists design better treatment interventions for children who suffer from autism spectrum disorder,” said James Scully, medical director of the American Psychiatric Association.

What’s more, the organization said the public will have another opportunity to weigh in on the potential changes. The psychiatric association will open up an additional public comment period this spring.

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