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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Rapid Test to Screen for Autism"

At the Mackinac Center, Jack McHugh writes:
Autism and treatment for its various complications is becoming one of the most discussed mandates. Autism is a brain disorder that affects three areas of development: communication, social interaction, and creative or imaginative play. In the past, autism has fallen under the broader category of mental health, but one of the latest state legislative trends is to pass a standalone autism mandate separate from mental health benefit mandates. Thus far, 25 states have passed autism mandates, but the number of bills introduced has grown each year. With advances in the diagnosis (including a new rapid test to screen for autism) and treatment, autism mandates will likely remain high on legislative priority lists.
According to Autism Speaks, 23 states have enacted autism mandates.

It is not clear what Mr. McHugh means by "a new rapid test to screen for autism." (As of this post, he had not responded to an email query.) He may be referring to the Rapid ABC screener, an assessment that researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech are developing. But this assessment is still a work in progress, and it purports only to identify children who may be at risk of autism. In any case, rapid screening measures have been around for some time. Diagnosis, which is different from screening, remains a much more elaborate process.

If he is referring to press reports this summer that British scientists had developed a 15-minute brain scan, the claim is badly mistaken. As an earlier post explained, press reports were misleading -- as they often are when it comes to autism science. The British National Health Service said of the study in question:
This small preliminary study is a valuable contribution to the search for a better way of identifying autism, a condition that can be difficult to diagnose due to its wide range of causes, types and symptoms. However, it is not possible to say at present whether such a technique could replace or even aid current diagnostic methods in the near future. Far bigger studies comparing the brain scans of larger numbers of people with ASD and those without the condition are now needed to assess whether this scan is accurate enough for widespread use.
If Mr. McHugh gets in touch and explains that he was referring to something else, I will of course update this post.

UPDATE: Mr. McHugh did send me an email noting that the paragraph was actually a quotation from a piece by the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, an industry group. I will email the author of the original piece.