"Name Test" May Suggest Autism and Cause Panic

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What has come to be known as the "name test" is an assessment researchers at the University of California, Davis devised to screen for early indicators of autism in babies. It is a simple test that involves saying a child's name and seeing if they respond to it.

While the researchers concluded that the name test is quite reliable in indicating developmental issues indicative of autism, some media coverage of the 2007 study wrongly insinuated that the test can diagnose the condition. More than a decade later, many people still wonder if that is true.

Here's what the "name test" autism experiment really looked at and what its findings mean.

The Study

In 2007, researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute did an experiment with young infants. It was part of a larger and ongoing research project on autism.

The infants were put into two groups:

  • The babies in the first group were considered to be at "high risk" for having autism because they had an older sibling who was autistic.
  • The babies in the second group were not considered to be at high risk for autism and were the control group for the study.

All of the infants were between the ages of 6 and 12 months old. Some of the infants were followed up with by the researchers until they were 24 months old.

What The Researchers Did

For the experiment, the researchers stood behind the babies while they were playing and called their names.

If a baby didn't respond, the researcher waited a few seconds and tried again. If the researcher called the baby's name three times and got no response, they gave up.

The researchers recorded how many tries it took for each baby to respond to their name. They also noted if a baby did not respond to their name at all.

What the Study Showed

During the follow-up, the researchers counted how many of the infants had been diagnosed with autism.

They also looked at how many times it had taken for each child to respond to their name during the experiment.

The researchers tried to figure out if there were any connections between how the baby did in the name test and being diagnosed with autism.

  • When the babies were tested at 6 months old, the researchers didn't notice any significant connections to a later autism diagnosis.
  • At the age of 12 months old, all of the babies in the control group "passed" the name test. Only about 86% of the babies at high risk for autism had "passed" the name test.
  • By the time they were 24 months old, more than half of the at-risk babies who had "failed" the name test had been diagnosed with autism or another developmental condition.

What the Researchers Said

The researchers concluded that if a child who is 12 months old is not responding to their name, it could be a sign that they have a developmental delay or condition—including autism.

However, the researchers did not conclude that the name test alone could be used to diagnose any of these conditions.

Media Coverage

The study, which was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 2007, was heavily covered by the media.

However, the way that many media outlets wrote about the study may have confused readers and contributed to the panic over the name test.

Headlines

Headlines give readers a sense of what an article will be about, but they don't tell the full story.

When the name test study was covered, some of the headlines outlets used might have set readers up for confusion.

  • An article that appeared on the BBC website titled Baby name test may spot autism led with the introduction: Routinely checking to see if babies can respond to their name at the age of one could help detect autism earlier than other tests, US experts believe.
  • WebMD published an article titled New Early Clue to Autism with the leading text: Autism Possible in at-Risk 1-Year-Olds That Don't Respond to Their Names.
  • Reuters published an article titled No response to name by infant suggests autism,

Missing Key Points

Beyond the headlines, some articles that covered the study presented the information in a way that didn't put some of the most important findings front and center.

For example:

  • The introduction to the BBC article suggested that a baby that does not turn when their name is called is most likely autistic.
  • The Reuter's headline made it seem like failing the name test was a definite indicator of autism.

These articles did cover the rest of the study's findings were covered later on. However, many of the key points would have been missed by someone who didn't finish reading the article.

Leaving Out Limitations

A lot of the media coverage left some of the most important points about the research for last—or didn't cover them at all.

In the actual study text, the researchers made it clear that "failing" the name test did not mean a child was autistic. They also did not intend for the name test to be a single way to diagnose autism.

If a Child "Fails" the Name Test

A child who repeatedly does not respond to their name might be autistic, but they could also have other developmental conditions.

They could also have a health condition that prevents them from responding to their name—for example, they might not be able to hear.

The articles also didn't point out the limitations of the study. For example, the experiment was only done with a very small number of babies from one part of the country.

Continued Research

The name test experiment was just one part of a broader autism research project at UC Davis that's still going on today.

In 2017, the researchers did another name test experiment. The findings were similar to those from the study a decade before. However, the researchers again emphasized that the name test alone is not enough to diagnose autism.

One of the main researchers, Sally Ozonoff, continues to research autism in 2022. Since the name test study, Ozonoff's research on autism has also included:

  • A case study using family home videos suggested that changes in gross motor skills, like sitting up and walking, might be noticeable years before a child is diagnosed with autism.
  • A sibling autism study that suggested younger siblings of autistic children might be more likely to also be autistic.
  • A study in 2021 that suggested the way that a young baby looks at and interacts with objects might be able to predict whether they would be diagnosed with autism.

The field of autism research also goes well beyond the UC Davis studies. Researchers around the world are looking at possible causes and risk factors for autism. They're also trying to find better ways to diagnose autism.

That said, one of the most important areas of autism research does not necessarily get the most attention—we still have a lot to learn about how to support autistic children and adults.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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