Experts Oppose Universal Autism Screening That Could Allow For Early Intervention, Saying More Research Is Needed

According to U.S. News & World Report, a government task force was recently called together to determine whether or not universal autism screening should be mandated as early as possible, regardless of whether children have shown obvious symptoms. After their review, it appears the panel of health experts remains undecided on the matter. Instead, the U.S. Preventative Task Force said that, before they could come down one way or another on the issue, more research needed to be done on children under three years of age who don't show signs of autistic spectrum disorders 

In a draft proposal issued this week, members of the task force stated:

The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children for whom no concerns of ASD have been raised by their parents or clinical provider. 

As you might imagine, that answer wasn't exactly what members of advocacy groups like Autism Speaks and The National Autism Association wanted to hear. Currently, screening for signs of ASD begins at a child's 18-month checkup, whereas general signs of developmental delays begin earlier, at nine months. Many advocates within the autism community believe that universal screening would make early detection possible for millions of kids — and that the earlier it happens, the better.

Plenty of other experts agree with that reasoning. "The No. 1 factor in success of treatment for autism is early intervention," Donald Mueller, CEO of Children's Hospital at Erlanger, told USNWR. Mueller is also the former head of operations and executive director of the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta. "If someone is suggesting we should not screen our kids early, I would disagree," he said. Dr. Susan E. Levy of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and AAP’s autism subcommittee also agrees, telling USNWR, "You identify the kids early, you get them to treatment early, and the outcome is better.

But according to members of the task force, there's just not enough evidence there to support a government mandate yet. There's also no reason to panic over their ruling (or lack thereof), either. "We are not telling doctors to stop screening, but we also aren't telling them they should all be screening," pediatrician and vice chair of the task force Dr. David Grossman told USNWR. "What this is more than anything else is a call for research." 

In a statement, fellow pediatrician and task force member Alex Kemper also aimed to calm parents' fears: 

It is important to note that the task force is not recommending against screening for autism, but is calling for more research on screening children who do not have signs or symptoms of autism. As the science on autism continues to evolve, parents who have any concerns about their child’s development should tell their child’s doctor.

According to Autism Speaks, nearly one in 68 children are affected by ASD, and one in 42 boys. It's also the fastest-growing disorder of its kind in the U.S. Additionally, autism's root cause has remained alarmingly elusive to researchers — hence so many parents and advocates pushing to learn more about ASD and head it off earlier. 

Considering just how many lives are impacted by the affects of autism every day, it certainly seems that earlier intervention would be huge for millions of kids, parents, and families — and that a justification for universal screening can't come soon enough.

Have an opinion on this? The task force’s draft recommendation is open for public comment for 30 days, ending August 31, 2015. The panel will also issue final recommendations within six months after the comment period ends. 

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