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Friday, October 12, 2007

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Why the Internet Autism Test is probably not reliable

A test of one's Autism Quotient is readily available on the Internet. Its most famous appearance may be in an article in Wired magazine, which included a copy of the test. Many people have taken the test and seem to take a perverse pleasure in scoring high, thereby identifying themselves as somewhat autistic and therefore as true "geeks".

Reference to a scholarly paper by those who developed this test makes me suspect that the self-diagnostic approach to the test is flawed. Checking the fine print, we find this:

" ... 80% of adults with AS or high functioning autism scored above a critical minimum of 32, whereas only 2% of control adults did. "

What this is saying, as far as I can see, is that people known to have autism generally scored high on a test designed to test for autistic traits. OK. But it is then noted that 2% of control adults scored high as well. What does this imply? That 1 in 50 people in the ordinary population will score as "autistic". Autism is generally considered to be a rare condition. But 1 in 50 people is a very high number of people. Clearly this test will produce a lot of false positives, with large numbers of people with no clinical condition scoring into the abnormal range associated with autism.

One of the signs of autism is social withdrawal. However to be shy and socially withdrawn - to be scholarly in other words - is not to be autistic. I feel that people are testing themselves for a symptom of a disease, and then deciding that they have the disease. It's a form of hypochondria.

To use an analogy, perhaps 2% of the male population is over six feet two inches. Men with excess growth hormone will mostly be over six feet two inches. But that does not mean that everybody over six feet two inches has a hormonal problem.

Julian

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