You may need to read this story several times to try to understand what this new study might mean for early detection of autism spectrum disorders. It would have helped readers to have more time spent with the methods used in the study and the actual findings than in the interpretations being made by a scientist with an advocacy organization. Additional information about the patients and controls in the study would have been helpful. For example, are they primarily newly diagnosed?
As the story notes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that 1 out of every 88 children has been diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder. That’s a huge increase in just a short span, and parents need better tools both to detect signs of autism and to help their children cope. However, the story could have pointed out that, in part, the rapid increase is due to improved detection and broadening of the diagnosis to include a clinical spectrum.
There is no discussion of costs in the study, even though EEGs have been in use for more than 60 years.
The story was about a test. Stories about tests should quantify how well the test worked, how sensitive, how specific, how often, how many times out of how many times tried, etc. This story provided none of those measurements.
Nor is it clear what the potential harms might be. The rise in autism diagnoses has been controversial in part because once a child is put “on the spectrum” they may be treated differently by the educational system, not to mention other kids.
If EEG is used inappropriately and ‘overdiagnosis’ is a concern, this could be a problem.
The story provides the basic elements of the research, but we wish it had gone a little deeper. One big missing piece is any discussion of the limitations of EEG tests for this type of analysis. EEGs are conducted by connecting electrodes to the scalp, and they are notorious for failing to capture brain activity deep inside the brain. So while they may be documenting differences in brain patterns between the autistic and non-autistic groups, they may also be missing other similarities and differences.
The story also does not give enough detail about the strength of the association between EEG findings and the clinical behaviors. (
The story does not engage in disease mongering, and we were glad to see that Dr. Dawson’s comments focused on the new study and not on the broader question of the number of children with autism spectrum disorders.
We’re giving this one a pass here, but we thought that more time could have been spent with the only other independent expert quoted in the story, who was given one sentence to offer perspective.
The story does mention that autism is a clinical diagnosis (and though this research study was not about diagnosis, it deals with better understanding the brain activity behind the behaviors which lead to the diagnosis). It would be hard for the writer to do much more than that.
It is not clear from this story that EEGs are widely used in research or whether they currently have other clinical applications. We can’t assume that consumers know this. If my chlid is not speaking by a certain age, can I go to my doctor and ask for an EEG? And, if I do, what would be the next steps?
The story nicely explains that this research builds on earlier research by including a larger group of children being studied. It says, “‘What was unique about this study is the very large number of children studied,’ Dawson noted. ‘Consistent with many previous studies using EEG and functional MRI with both children and adults with autism, these investigators found that, overall, children with autism show reduced coordination (coherence) across brain regions.'”
The story does not rely on a news release.