HEADLINES Published August6, 2015 By Bernadette Strong

Autism Screening Needs More Study Before It Is Used Widely

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A baby at the pediatrician's office. A task force is saying that universal screening for autism at this age should be studied more to see if it if valid.
(Photo : Fernando Camino, Getty Images )

Screening children under age 3 could help make an early determination if they have autism, when intensive early treatment might be able to improve their condition. Several health groups have guidelines that urge parents and pediatricians to screen toddlers even if they have no symptoms of development disabilities. Now a government task force is calling for more research to see if these screenings are valid before they are used widely.

Pediatricians and family physicians are supposed to check regularly to see if young children are on schedule for appropriate milestones and to determine if they show signs of any developmental disorders, including autism. Child development experts tell parents that they should point out any concerns about development to the doctor, such as whether a child will not make eye contact. Children who show signs of developmental disabilities should receive appropriate diagnostic testing.

But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has issued a draft recommendation that discusses a more intensive screening: using parent questionnaires and other tools to screen for autism in children under 3 who do not have any obvious symptoms of autism or similar problems. The task force said that there is not enough evidence to recommend one way or the other for universal screening. Doctors should use their own judgment on screening until more research shows if there is a benefit. There is also no firm information on when to screen, and what tools to use.

Early treatment is promising for children who are more severely affected by autism, but has not been studied in those who have milder symptoms, symptoms that would only be caught in screening.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened at ages 18 months and again at 24 months, in addition to standard the milestone checks. Other health groups also support universal screening.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is an independent, volunteer panel of national experts in preventive medicine and evidence-based medicine. The task force's draft recommendation is open for comment from the public for 30 days. You can learn more about the draft recommendation at http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/more-information-on-the-update-in-progress/autism-spectrum-disorder-in-young-children-screening.  

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