Researchers have developed a first-of-its-kind test for autism that they say can find markers of risk in a single strand of hair, an innovation that might help clinicians identify it in young children before they miss developmental milestones.
The test — which is still in the early stages of development by the startup LinusBio and a ways from federal approval — is a diagnostic aid, meant to assist clinicians in identifying autism but not to be relied on alone. Because hair catalogs a history of exposures to metals and other substances, the technology uses an algorithm to analyze it for patterns of particular metals the researchers say are associated with autism.
This test is the first to analyze this type of exposure history over time. The analysis predicted autism accurately about 81% of the time, according to a peer-reviewed study published last month in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.
Also at NBC, psychologist Sarah Gundle, the mother of an autistic person, writes of her ambivalence. On the one hand, early diagnosis could mean earlier and more effective intervention. On the other hand, parents may rush to "fix" their kids and treat all their behaviors as pathologies in need of "cure."
There’s another reason the new test worries me. The traditional means of assessing autism has always been the direct observation of the child. What will we lose in understanding this mysterious condition when the means of diagnosis are boiled down to laboratory analysis? What will happen when doctors replace the process of carefully observing a child, as well as asking parents and teachers probing questions, with reading the results of some tests on a hair follicle? This possibility of a new test is meant to be used as a “diagnostic aid,” not as a stand-alone measure of autism, but I still fear that by introducing it into the diagnostic regime, it will chip away at that psychological probing that leads to a more nuanced view of children themselves.
As always with autism, caution is in order. For decades, ASD people and their families have read of medical breakthroughs, only to meet with disappointment as more studies come in.