A test of tolerance

Autism is not the only developmental disability that a child can be born with. It does, however, garner a lot of attention. Part of the reason is that we still don’t understand the condition as well as we would like. And we still have no way of testing for it through prenatal screening.

Recent research has, however, raised the possibility of such a test. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology showed an association between higher levels of testosterone in amniotic fluid samples and autistic traits in the older child. In light of this information, Simon Baron Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, has called for a debate on the ethics of prenatal screening. He is against the practice, as he made clear in an online article in Community Care magazine.

If there is one absolute about screening tests – where testing is done in the absence of symptoms – it is that one has to be extraordinarily careful. The prenatal tests currently available – for Down’s syndrome and spina bifida – are meant to be performed only after appropriate discussion of the potential problems. Yet these tests are still limited in the information they can give us. They do not tell us how disabled the child will be, or what his or her life would be like.

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