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Baby sex checks for autism
WA first: Reproductive Technology Council approves application for fertility clinic to screen for autism. Picture: AP

For the first time, WA health authorities have allowed embryos to be screened to reduce the chance of a high-risk family having a child with autism.

The Reproductive Technology Council approved the application for a fertility clinic to do a pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, to screen for autism.

There are no genetic tests for autism, so instead of looking for a gene mutation, the screening identifies the embryo's sex because boys are at least four times more likely to develop autism.

It is a new frontier in embryo screening because, unlike other conditions with a distinct genetic basis, autism is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Though most Australian health authorities, including the RTC, consider applications case by case, Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is weighing up whether to allow autism screening.

The Weekend West believes only families at high risk of having a child with autism, such as families who already have two boys with severe autism, would be considered for embryo screening.

It differs from prenatal testing of babies in the womb, which checks for conditions such as Down syndrome and can result in parents opting for a termination.

PGD is done in a laboratory before an embryo is implanted.

A Health Department spokesman confirmed it was the first time PGD testing had been approved in WA to reduce the risk of having a child with autism.

"All applications for PGD are submitted by fertility clinics and considered by the RTC on a case-by-case basis and there is currently no list of pre-approved conditions," he said.

"There is currently no specific genetic test for autism but males are about four to five times more likely to have the disorder."

Chief medical officer Gary Geelhoed said it was a sensitive area and was carefully assessed.

He said selecting a female embryo to reduce the chance of autism would only be done in the context of a family at high risk.

Autism was caused by various factors and one way to reduce a high risk would be to have a girl, but the move was about selecting an embryo pre-implantation, not terminating a pregnancy.