Federal task force: no firm evidence for universal autism screening

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Decision against universal screening of toddlers sparks sharp reaction from child development experts. (WPVI)

It's a controversial decision on autism, one that's sparked protests from parents, doctors, and child development specialists.

A government task force says toddlers shouldn't be routinely screened for it - at least not now.

Some autism awareness groups want universal screening for toddlers between 18 and 30 months.

But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says there's not enough evidence yet to show that screenings lead to interventions that improve a child's health.

Some autism experts say from their experience, screening and early intervention works.

"It's going to maximize their development and growth, and it's going to minimize the impact of autism symptoms. So if we can identify kids earlier, while their brains are growing and developing rapidly, we have a much better chance to really make a difference in their lives and future," says Thomas Frazier, Ph.D., of Cleveland Clinic's Autism Center.

Dr. Frazier says the screening, which is a questionnaire for parents about a child's social behavior, can also pick up other learning or behavioral disorders.

The USPSTF is one of the United States' most influential, and controversial, medical bodies.

In recent years, its recommendations against starting mammogram screening for women at age 40, and against most prostate cancer screening for men have drawn fire.

And this one is already doing the same.

Within minutes of the release of the task force report, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement, blasting the decision.

"The AAP stands behind its recommendation that all children be screened for ASD at ages 18 and 24 months," it said in part.

It continued, "Strong evidence already exists on the benefit of formal screening using standardized tools. This type of screening can identify children with significant developmental and behavioral challenges early, when they may benefit most from intervention, as well as those with other developmental difficulties."

"For screening to be effective, by design it must be applied to all children - not only those who exhibit overt symptoms, or those an individual clinician judges would benefit," it said.

As with the mammogram and prostate cancer decisions, the task force was concerned about over-diagnoses, or "false-positives."

It maintains screening should be an individual decision.

Parents concerned about their child's development should discuss it with their healthcare provider.
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