Health experts have urged physicians to screen toddlers for autism in order to start the treatment as early as possible. But an influential US health panel said that more evidence is needed to support universal screening for autism in young children.
Guidelines proposed by the US Preventive Services Task Force, an independent, government-backed panel recommends that whether to adopt screening tests for various conditions, applies to children aged 18 to 30 months who show no signs of an autism spectrum disorder.
Other organizations promote autism screening during early childhood. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening at 18 and 24 months regardless of whether the child shows signs of autism.
Dr. David Grossman, a pediatrician and vice chairman of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, said, "We want to make sure this recommendation is not misunderstood. Children who are exhibiting signs and symptoms should be referred and tested."
The task force review that began in 2013 found research gaps regarding the benefits and harms of screening all children for autism. "We need more evidence and we think that evidence is achievable," said Grossman.
More research is needed on the outcomes of children who are diagnosed through screening even though they do not have signs or symptoms of autism.
The task force found evidence to support the accuracy of the tools used to screen children, like the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) were the parents answer a series of questions about the child's communication skills, attention and movements.
The AAP recommends healthcare providers to look for signs of autism and screen a child with M-CHAT at ages 18 and 24 months.
Under the AAP recommendation, healthcare providers would regularly watch for signs of autism, and screen a child with a tool such as M-CHAT at ages 18 and 24 months.
Dr Susan Levy, Pediatrician, chair of the AAP's autism subcommittee, said that the task force's statement may lead people to question the benefit of screening. Early detection paves the way for early treatment, which is known to result in better outcomes for children.