Possible prenatal diagnosis of autism: Could geniuses be aborted?

Studies indicate that new technologies may allow doctors to diagnose autism while a child is still in the womb.  Amniocentesis, a test that diagnoses chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome, may be able to indicate whether a child will develop autism after birth.  The studies have mostly been conducted in Europe, but have caused quite a bit of controversy among autism awareness groups in both the United States and Europe.  The fear is that if doctors can accurately diagnose a predisposition for an Autism Spectrum Disorder, will children prenatally diagnosed with autism be aborted, much like 92% of children diagnosed with Down syndrome?

For the last 15 years, researchers have been studying the link between high levels of fetal testosterone in amniotic fluid and the development of autism.  Autism is usually diagnosed before the age of three when distinct signs of autism are found in the child’s behavior.  Because autism is a spectrum disorder with different levels of severity, it is nearly impossible to predict what level of the spectrum the child will reach. 

Classical autism is usually characterized by decreased social exchange.  It may include a range of back-and-forth actions, such as gestures, sounds, play, attention, and conversation.  A child with any form of autism may have temper tantrums and intense opposition to change.  Children with autism can be very advanced for their age in certain behaviors, while they lag behind their peers in others.  For example, a three year old child may know how to read, but cannot play peek-a-boo. While children may exhibit signs of autism, it is hard to determine what level of severity it will reach, or if it will eventually become undetectable. 

Researchers studying the link between fetal testosterone levels and an Autism Spectrum Disorder claim that their goal is to study how to best treat, or even prevent, the disorder.  But the outcome of these advanced prenatal tests could see an increase in elective abortions as a way to "prevent" the disorder.  What few realize is the number of notable individuals throughout history who may have had some form of autism.

Diagnosing a pre-born child with a predisposition for an Autism Spectrum Disorder is dangerous to the children who will develop the disorder and those in whom the a disorder will never manifest.  Yet to many, the mere possibility of having children with autism is enough to end their lives before they can even start.  If children who are diagnosed prenatally are aborted because there is a possibility of developing an Autism Spectrum Disorder, it is not the disorder that is being eradicated, but rather the children whom a few deem unworthy. 

Dr. Darold Teffert of the Univeristy of Wisconsin estimates that nearly half of those who have what he calls “savant syndrome” fall on the autism spectrum. Savant syndrome is believed to be a condition in which those with developmental disorders have areas of expertise, intense skills, or brilliance that dominate their other capabilities. The movie “Rain Man” comes to mind when people think of savants; one who excels in a specific area, yet lacks certain skills that inevitably set them apart from society.

Asperger’s syndrome is a disorder on the autism spectrum that is often referred to as a “high-functioning” form of autism. Individuals who are diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome often display advanced skill levels in mathematics, music, or science.  Historians and scientists speculate that Albert Einstein, Vincent van Gogh, Isaac Newton, James Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, and even George Washington may have exhibited characteristics of an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In 2005, Dr. Joseph Buxbaum, who heads the Autism Genome Project at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said major progress in identifying the genes associated with autism could be discovered within the next decade.  “I think within ten years we'll have found the genes of major affect and most of the genes of minor affect,” explained Buxbaum. “That will then lead to reasonable targets for drug interventions. It will lead to much better diagnosis and certainly earlier tests.”

If a prenatal test is perfected that can accurately diagnose an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the controversy surrounding it will only grow. Members of the autistic community fear that a prenatal diagnosis and what doctors call “intervention” may lead to an increased number of abortions committed against innocent children.  Apprehension about the possibility of such a test is not unwarranted, given that 92% of children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.  There will be no way to ensure that the great geniuses of the future are not eradicated under the guise of intervention. 


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