Some of those changes bring the manual closer to the 13 disability categories identified in the IDEA, said Stephen E. Brock, a professor of school psychology at California State University, Sacramento, and the president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists. For example, the IDEA only names "autism" or "specific learning disability" as categories, as opposed to Asperger's syndrome or dyslexia.
The chief difference between the DSM-5 and the main law that governs special education is that simply the presence of symptoms is not enough to trigger special education services, Mr. Brock said. The disability symptoms must have some negative effect on a student's academic performance before special education is merited.
The psychiatrists' manual "does not direct our authority, but it absolutely should direct our attention," Mr. Brock said. School psychologists should have basic familiarity with the manual, he said, so that they can understand if a child comes to school with a particular diagnosis from a clinician.
The establishment of social communication disorder as a category offers a more precise definition of disabilities for students who struggle to follow conversational rules, such as taking turns speaking, or who have trouble understanding ambiguous uses of language.
Peggy Shaefer Whitby, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said the new classification may pose a puzzle to school teams that have not seen the diagnosis of social communication disorder before.
"How is the [individualized education program] team going to look at this and determine how to serve these kids?" said Ms. Whitby, who specializes in autism.