Researchers Question Screening All Children For Autism
A leading pediatricians’ group recommends that doctors routinely screen all kids for autism, but a provocative new study released Monday questions the practice arguing that it may in fact do more harm than good.
Researchers behind the study published in the journal Pediatrics conducted a comprehensive search of medical literature to assess what is known about the reliability of autism screening. They found that currently available screening methods continue to flag too many children who should not qualify for an autism diagnosis to warrant screening all kids.
What’s more, they note that not a single screening method has been scrutinized in a randomized, controlled study.
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“None of the autism screening tests for the general population that we have today have proven accuracy,” said Jan Willem Gorter, one of the study authors and an associate professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Canada. “That is, they aren’t good enough to accurately detect children who have autism or to accurately detect those who don’t.”
Gorter and his colleagues conclude that “community screening of all preschoolers is premature.”
The findings sharply contradict a 2007 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics advising pediatricians to screen their patients for the developmental disorder at 18 and 24 months during regular checkups, whether or not a child’s parent has indicated any concerns.
Those with the American Academy of Pediatrics say that while the study raises some valid points, the value of increased early identification and intervention that can be achieved through widespread screening outweighs the risk of overdiagnosis.
“We’re not going to let the weaknesses of screening tools mean that we’re not going to screen,” says Patty Manning-Courtney, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ autism subcommittee.
Manning-Courtney doesn’t dispute that the new study’s findings are accurate from a traditional medical perspective. However, she argues that since autism cannot be easily diagnosed with a blood or genetic test like many other disorders, the merits of screening must be measured differently.
“You may pick up some kids in screening that don’t have autism, but they have something. Families don’t regret being diagnosed inaccurately, but they do regret not having their concerns listened to,” she says.