The method most commonly used by doctors to identify children with autism is missing more kids than it catches, according to new research. The study, published this month in the journal Pediatrics, found that less than 40 percent of children later diagnosed with autism screened positive for the condition on the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers with Follow Up, or M-CHAT/F.
As noted in a report on the study by Disability Scoop.com, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at eighteen and twenty-four months. This screening is most commonly conducted using the M-CHAT, a questionnaire on child development filled out by parents, with a follow-up interview with the child’s doctor.
In conducting the study, researchers examined electronic health records for 25,999 children between 16 and 21 months who visited a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia site between January 2011 and July 2015. 2.2% of the children were eventually diagnosed with autism at around eight years old. While 91% of the children were screened with the M-CHAT, the test identified only 38.8% later found to be on the autism spectrum, according to the researchers.
The study was led by Dr. Whitney Guthrie, a clinical psychologist specializing in early diagnosis at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research. According to Disability Scoop’s report, Guthrie clarified that, despite the shortcomings in the M-CHAT found by the study, her team does not recommend that pediatricians stop universal screening for autism.
“Instead, clinicians should continue to screen using the M-CHAT/F, while being aware that this screening tool does miss some children with ASD,” she said.
The study also found that 9% of the children given the M-CHAT were from lower income families, racial minority backgrounds, and homes where English was not the main spoken language.
Kate Wallis, a developmental pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab, noted that racial and economic disparities in autism screening are a “cause for concern.”
“This study revealed important limitations and provides us with new knowledge that we can use to make critical improvements to autism screening tools and screening processes, so pediatricians can properly detect and support more children with autism and reduce disparities in diagnosis and care,” Wallis said.