Monday, September 10, 2018

A blood test for autism: the good and the bad

Metabolic differences in the blood can indicate autism in about 17 percent of children who have it, a new study in Biological Psychiatry reveals. And a blood test will reportedly be available by the end of the year to screen for markers of autism spectrum disorder. This could prove great for helping children—but a negative for public perception of autism. 

NeuroPointDX, a company focused on diagnosis and treatment of autism founded by the mother of a son with autism, conducted the test in collaboration with the MIND Institute at the University of California California, Davis. Researchers compared plasma from 516 children with ASD to that of 164 children without it, and detected abnormalities in three amino acid groups in 16.7 percent of children with autism.

A test for autism could diagnose children as young as 18 months old; children who have developmental delays would be prime candidates for testing. "The sooner families can receive information that their child is at high risk for autism, the sooner they can begin effective behavioral or other therapies," notes Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. The average age for autism diagnosis, research has found, is more than 4 years old. But children who are diagnosed before age 4 are more likely to get effective, evidence-based treatment, such as behavioral therapy.

I am all for the earliest intervention possible. We were acutely aware at Max's birth that he was at high risk for many physical and cognitive challenges, and he got physical therapy starting at a month old. I'm so grateful he did. Early Intervention was created because research shows it can boost development and increase chances of improvement for infants and toddlers. For children with autism, it can improve IQ, language ability and social interaction.

When Max was a baby, cerebral palsy seemed so scary and awful. This is both because I didn't know anyone who had it, and because our culture makes disability seem more like a negative than a positive (or even a neutral). And now I know, as Max has clearly shown me: You can have CP and have a good life. But see, that's the challenge here. As word gets out about a blood test for autism, people who lack experience with loved ones who have it may further categorize autism as a Scary Bad Thing. Because that's usually what blood tests are for—you get them to check for disease, cancer, anemia, infection.

This downside doesn't outweigh the positives of a blood test for autism, and its potential to help children. But the test sure won't be doing much to stop the stigma. Even as companies continue to make progress that may benefit people with autism, I hope they'll help contribute to the cure of ignorance and misunderstanding. I hope they'll make it known that there is all kinds of neurological diversity in this world. I hope they'll contribute to nonprofits and programs that help people better understand and embrace autism. Or maybe, as is often the case, spreading that message will be left to nonprofits, people who have family and friends autism, and autistic people themselves.

Image: Flickr/Lori Greig

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