As anyone who has struggled to get clear answers for their child knows, there is no single medical test to detect autism. And because autism spectrum disorders are so complex and varied, they often require a team of physicians or psychiatrists to diagnose them -- a process that can extend months or years after a parent first spots red flags.
Since 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for all children to be screened for autism at 18 and 24 months, using tools such as the Modified Checklist of Autism in Toddlers, or "M-CHAT" -- a simple questionnaire that asks parents about their children's playtime behavior, responses to social cues and motor skills. The test has been studied for well over a decade and has been shown to be very effective in signaling which children should have further observation and evaluation.
But, as the Academy itself states outright, none of the screening tools currently available are perfect, and newer tools are under development so that children can be diagnosed more efficiently, and with greater accuracy. Indeed, with ever more studies showing early intervention can significantly improve outcomes -- at the same time that a growing number of children are being diagnosed with autism (1 in 68, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) -- the desire for newer, better ways to diagnose autism is strong.
"The holy grail for research in the area of diagnosis is really focused on trying to find more objective means for diagnosing psychiatric disorders, including autism -- finding more precise, objective, physiological-based ways of detecting risk," said Rob Ring, chief science officer with the non-profit Autism Speaks. "In autism this is particularly true, especially when you're dealing with young children, many of whom may not be verbal."
Here, in no particular order, are some of the more promising tools researchers are exploring for diagnosing autism :