From complexity to category: Responding to diagnostic uncertainties of autistic spectrum disorders

Authors

  • Catherine Skellern,

    1. School of Population Health, University of Queensland; Community Child Health Service, Royal Children's Hospital District Health Service; Child Development Network, Brisbane
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  • Philip Schluter,

    1. School of Population Health, University of Queensland; Community Child Health Service, Royal Children's Hospital District Health Service; Child Development Network, Brisbane
    2. Faculty of Health, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand
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  • Michael McDowell

    1. Child Development Network, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
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Dr Catherine Skellern, Community Child Health Service, 184 St Pauls Terrace, Fortitude Valley, Qld 4006, Australia. Fax: +61 7 3252 7895; email: Catherine_Skellern@health.qld.gov.au

Abstract

Objective: Recent data from Education Queensland has identified rising numbers of children receiving diagnoses of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Faced with funding diagnostic pressures, in clinical situations that are complex and inherently uncertain, it is possible that specialists err on the side of a positive diagnosis. This study examines the extent to which possible overinclusion of ASD diagnosis may exist in the presence of uncertainty and factors potentially related to this practice in Queensland.

Methods: Using anonymous self-report, all Queensland child psychiatrists and paediatricians who see paediatric patients with development/behavioural problems were surveyed and asked whether they had ever specified an ASD diagnosis in the presence of diagnostic uncertainty. Using logistic regression, elicited responses to the diagnostic uncertainty questions were related to other clinical- and practice-related characteristics.

Results: Overall, 58% of surveyed psychiatrists and paediatricians indicated that, in the face of diagnostic uncertainty, they had erred on the side of providing an ASD diagnosis for educational ascertainment and 36% of clinicians had provided an autism diagnosis for Carer's Allowance when Centrelink diagnostic specifications had not been met.

Conclusion: In the absence of definitive biological markers, ASD remains a behavioural diagnosis that is often complex and uncertain. In response to systems that demand a categorical diagnostic response, specialists are providing ASD diagnoses, even when uncertain. The motivation for this practice appears to be a clinical risk/benefit analysis of what will achieve the best outcomes for children. It is likely that these practices will continue unless systems change eligibility to funding based on functional impairment rather than medical diagnostic categories.

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