Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lifelong developmental condition that greatly affects an individual’s behaviour and their ability to interact with other people.
As a pregnant woman, I was offered the chance to test my unborn child
for certain birth defects, including Down Syndrome.
I declined the test,
stating that it didn’t matter to me what the result was, and to be honest I
didn’t want to know.
I would deal with my baby and whatever joys and challenges and stresses
and pain and celebration and love and surprises he had for me once he was born.
But at the time I remember thinking, why can’t we screen for autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lifelong developmental condition that
greatly affects an individual’s behaviour and their ability to interact with other
people. It can be characterised by restricted or repetitive interests, activities
or behaviours and difficulty with social interaction and communication.
It is a spectrum because every person with autism has a different level
of severity of these symptoms; some may lead relatively normal lives whereas
others may need permanent supportive care. Asperger’s Syndrome is one condition
on the ‘high-functioning’ end of the spectrum.
Often sufferers will have physical or sensory repetitive behaviours,
difficulty making eye contact and talking to people or touching them, and
difficulty picking up on other people’s feelings and cues. They may have anintellectual impairment or learning
difficulties, although at times they can also be incredibly intelligent and
They may be unable to cope with noises like hair dryers or vacuum
cleaners, unable to walk on certain surfaces, or uncomfortable with enclosed
Some children on the high functioning end of the spectrum can be schooled
at regular schools with limited assistance (which is government funded in
Australia), or those on the more severe or low functioning end may go to
autistic specialist schools, where classes might be five students to one or two
An estimated 1 in 100 people has
diagnosis occur now?
Diagnosis for autism can occur at
a variety of ages. Children as young as 12 months can show behaviours that are
synonymous with the disorder (such as not making eye contact, not returning
smiles, repeatedly flapping or spinning hands).
Usually children with autism will have missed certain developmental
milestones by the time they are 18 months to 24 months old (not interacting
with other children, language skills undeveloped, not being able to point or
People on the high functioning end of the spectrum may not be confirmed
as autistic until later in childhood, in their teens, or even into adulthood.
Some may never be diagnosed.
For a checklist to help with diagnosis in young children see: (link at
we screen for now?
There are two kinds of prenatal tests to check on the health of your
baby, prenatal screening and diagnostic testing.
Prenatal or pregnancy screening checks the likelihood of a condition
being present, but won’t give a definite answer. These tests include testing
blood for chromosomal abnormalities or neural tube defects (such as spina
bifida) or measuring the baby’s neck to check for chances of Down Syndrome.
Diagnostic testing can be more invasive of the two, with a small risk
of miscarriage, but it gives a definite yes or no answer for the parents. It is
usually done with a needle taking a sample of the placenta or amniotic fluid to
test the cells.
If a serious genetic condition is
present in the family history, or if you are an older mother, you may consider
this form of test. If prenatal screening has already been done and shown a high
likelihood of a condition, then the parents may choose diagnostic testing to
How far advanced are we with autism screening?
In the last several years, the debate
has been rife over whether screening for autism should be allowed. At present,
through IVF, embryos can legally be screened to reduce the likelihood of
This is done by implanting only female embryos
because the incidence of girls with autism is lower than boys (1 in 4 children
with autism are girls). The screening is apparently only available for families
at high risk, such as those who already
have two boys with autism,and are not available to just anyone yet.
screening for baby conditions happen now?
There are two categories of prenatal screening for foetal conditions,
with two responses.
Pregnancy screening happens when the mother is already pregnant, and
her response to negative screening could be to terminate the pregnancy.
Both have the effect however of reducing or removing people with that
condition from the gene pool, which is why the incidence of Down Syndrome has
currently aren’t screening tests in either pregnant women or through IVF that
can test for autism at this time.
Autism can’t be diagnosed in the womb or embryos yet because experts
don’t know exactly what causes it. It is a genetic condition, but there are
many different combinations of genes that may result in a diagnosis of ASD.
Environmental factors may also play a part. It is not something
specific that shows up in the mother’s blood or the foetus’ cells, it is
usually only characterised by early behaviour.
Experts and opponents consider that it will only be a matter of time, however.
against: why we shouldn’t have screening for autism
In recent years, large embryo banks have started ‘screening’ for
autism, which has opened up theinevitable
debate, and strong feelings on both sides. Should we test for autism? If the
test comes back positive, will parents terminate their pregnancy?
The statistics around Down Syndrome screening indicates that yes,
parents will to a large extent, take the opportunity to terminate a pregnancy
that shows a high risk of autism.
Studies show that when screening comes back positive for Down Syndrome,
parents are choosing to terminate pregnancies in around 90% of cases.
While many parents would welcome the existence of autism screening
tests, the ability to screen in such a fashion could be called eugenicist, which is any scientific or
medical advances that advocate improving a population’s gene pool. This sort of
advancement can be considered negative by large groups in the community.
able to screen for autism is problematic for a number of reasons.
Firstly, autism is a spectrum, and the question arises, at what point
on the spectrum is considered the point where you would terminate the pregnancy?
If testing only showed that your child was likely to be on the autistic
spectrum, but if later you found out it was at
the very high functioning end, would or should you not terminate?
What happens when we remove autistic people from the world? While
parents and teachers raising children with autism might see some relief in the
daily difficulties of this, people with autism are individuals with worth,
personality and love who have a place to play in the world.
Some people with autism may have had the most incredible impact on
science, art and society, including possibly Einstein, Mozart, Michelangelo,
Darwin, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Andy Warhol and Stanley Kubrick.
More significant in recent times, it is speculated that both Steve Jobs
and Bill Gates could be identified as on the autism spectrum. While these are
speculative guesses only, it is without a doubt that autistic people have lived
and positively affected others’ lives throughout time.
the experts say?
Professor Andrew Whitehead, an authority on childhood health research
had this to say:
"It is without question that a person’s life would be improved if they
were free from intellectual disability,
if they had the facility to communicate more freely, and if they had the
capacity to live independently.
To want a person to live without disability
does not diminish in any way our love for people in these circumstances, nor
their irreplaceable importance in our lives.
Only a minority of our community know the challenges (and joys) of
raising a child with significant
disability. It is just plain wrong for people who have never been in this
position to judge the wants and desires of those who have."
People and families with autism, as well as medical experts, would need
to be involved in decisions around whether screening for ASD is a good idea or
has negative genetic consequences.
We can’t screen for it yet, but the consensus is that science will soon
be able to find a way, and the problem will move from whether or not we can to whether or we should.
people who may be on the autism spectrum
Welcome to Babyinfo – the ultimate pregnancy and newborn information guide. We are here to help you find all the pregnancy and baby info you need to make the most beautiful experience of your life even better.
Our team is comprised of an amazing mix of experienced mothers, recently pregnant women, and editors with tremendous medical knowledge in the fields of gynaecology and childbirth.
Think of us as your friendly advisors, here to give you honest, easy to understand and authentic information. We are here to be your support at this crucial time in your life, when you need it the most.
Note: This website is in no way meant to replace doctors, hospitals, or other healthcare providers that may be utilized by current mothers or mothers-to-be. All mothers are advised to see a doctor for medical advice and the appropriate care before, during, and after pregnancy.