London, Jan1 2 (ANI): Prenatal tests for autism may soon be available, thanks to scientists at Cambridge University's autism research centre, whose breakthrough study has prompted experts to call for a national debate about the consequences of screening for the disorder in the womb, and allowing women to terminate babies with the condition.
The study followed 235 children from birth to the age of eight, and found that high levels of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women was linked to autistic traits, like a lack of sociability and verbal skills, in their children by the time they are eight.
The discovery has raised the possibility of an amniocentesis (the same procedure used to test for Down's syndrome) to detect autism.
However, enabling couples to terminate the pregnancy after the detection of an autistic disorder might turn out to be highly controversial.
In particular, parents of children with autistic spectrum disorders do not approve of testing linked to termination, because they fear it would lead to greater discrimination and less support for them.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the research team, said that it was their right time to start considering where society stood on the issue.
"If there was a prenatal test for autism, would this be desirable? What would we lose if children with autistic spectrum disorder were eliminated from the population? We should start debating this. There is a test for Down's syndrome and that is legal and parents exercise their right to choose termination, but autism is often linked with talent. It is a different kind of condition," the Guardian quoted him as saying.
However, on the other hand, the research could pave the way for treatment, he said.
"We could do something about it. Some researchers or drug companies might see this as an opportunity to develop a pre-natal treatment. There are drugs that block testosterone. But whether we'd want to would be a different matter," he said.
According to the National Autistic Society, some of its members think a test to predict autism could be useful in helping parents prepare and get support for their child.
"I think it is really important that the autism community has a key role in shaping the research priorities in this area," said Amanda Batten, head of campaigns for the NAS.
She added: "There could be some real gains in recognising autism early. There are benefits, but there are concerns. People think it is about eugenics.
"It is important to stress that everyone with autism has the potential to make a unique and valued contribution to society. It is not always the autism that is a problem. It is other people and a lack of services and support."
However, she added that the more complicated ethical issue would be that of treatment in the womb, saying: "You get to the situation where you have a very great difficulty if families say we wouldn't want to be tested. As a society, do we accept that people can refuse tests when the outcome can make a difference to that unborn child?" (ANI)