A team of U.K. researchers assert that a common autism personality test — the 10-item Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ10) — lacks reliability and may not be capturing the right signs of autism.
In addition, since the results from this questionnaire are often used in large-scale studies to measure autistic traits in the general population, those studies may also lack validity, the researchers say.
In the new paper, published in Cambridge University Press’ new journal Experimental Results, psychologists from the University of Bath, King’s College London, and Cardiff University looked at data from more than 6,500 participants in the general population to examine the effectiveness of the AQ10 questionnaire in measuring autism.
Overall, the research team found that the test had poor reliability across several statistical techniques, and the team now suggests that we should question our reliance on AQ10 as a measure of autistic traits. The researchers also posit that we need new systems in place designed to better capture the range of autistic personality traits across the population.
“Our findings add further evidence to a growing body of literature indicating that the measures of autism and autistic traits currently used in research are inadequate,” said Dr. Punit Shah, senior author of the study and expert on cognitive processing at the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology.
“A lot of what we know about autism — and how to help people with autism — has come from studies where these tools are used. However, if the measure of autism is unreliable, as we suggest, so too are the findings and conclusions. Without reliable measures, it is unclear if the findings from these studies are valid, and may be hampering the support we provide for people with autistic personalities or diagnosed autism in society.”
In general, the AQ10 questionnaire asks people to report if they have personality traits associated with autism. There are many forms of these types of questionnaires, with the AQ10 being the shortest and most commonly used by GPs.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the government body responsible for making recommendations for clinical practice and to the National Health Service (NHS), recommends the AQ10 as a screening tool for autism in adults. For research purposes, results from the questionnaire are also used in large-scale studies to measure autistic traits in the general population.
These autistic traits/tendencies are then linked to their performance on other tasks, in order to inform how autism may be related to other social behaviors and difficulties.
“This is an important finding, which will hopefully initiate a more concerted effort at examining and refining tools used in autism research and clinical practice,” said Emily Taylor, a PhD researcher on the team. “Our analyses used a large sample without medical diagnoses, so the next step would be to conduct follow-up studies in equally large clinical samples.
“More generally, we have focused on a measure of autistic traits, but we know that there are similar reliability problems with measures of mental health tools. We need far more ‘basic’ science to examine and address these issues in future research, towards improving their application in the management of mental health difficulties in society.”
Source: University of Bath