The Autism Science Foundation (ASF) recently urged parents of toddlers to keep screening for autism using the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (MCHAT), despite false media coverage that the test was inaccurate. In its podcast, the ASF clarified that American pediatricians currently require all toddlers to take the MCHAT screening test twice, at the ages of 18 and 24 months. Screening with the MCHAT allows doctors to see which children might need a fuller diagnosis, and can allow them to make early referrals to the correct doctors or therapists.
ASF research fellow, Dr. Whitney Guthrie, researched the accuracy of the MCHAT in detecting autism at an early stage. The MCHAT is a short test that doctors do to check for autism before further testing can confirm a diagnosis. It includes asking parents if their child looks people in the eye when they interact with them, if they point at objects they want to draw attention to, and if the child likes to play pretend games. Its main purpose is to check how many developmental milestones a child has reached and to see if there might be cause for concern.
In her study, Dr. Guthrie looked at hospital records of the MCHAT scores of 20,000 children. A positive score meant that there might be cause for concern and that further testing was required. Of the 9.5% of children that scored positive on the MCHAT, 88% followed up with a doctor for further testing. After further testing, it was found that the MCHAT detected 15% of autistic children from the original sample. Though this may seem like a low number, the MCHAT actually did exactly what it was supposed to do. The test was designed to be a bit over reaching so as not to miss anybody who might have autism. Children who scored positively on the MCHAT but did not have autism were found to have other kinds of learning or developmental difficulties.
Dr. Guthrie argues that it is worth continuing universal MCHAT screening because, on average, children who tested positive were screened 7 months earlier than their peers who did not. In terms of childhood development, a 7 month headstart on the correct therapies can be very significant! She also recommends that even if the MCHAT comes back negative, if your parental intuition still makes you think there is cause for concern, you should still push for autism testing with your family doctor. Most importantly, keep screening!