Screening for Autism: There's an App for That

Posted on May 28, 2014



Most schools across the United States provide simple vision tests to their students - not to prescribe glasses, but to identify potential problems and recommend a trip to the optometrist. Researchers are now on the cusp of providing the same kind of service for autism.

Researchers at Duke University have developed software that tracks and records infants' activity during videotaped autism screening tests. Their results show that the program is as good at spotting behavioral markers of autism as experts giving the test themselves, and better than non-expert medical clinicians and students in training.

“We’re not trying to replace the experts,” said Jordan Hashemi, a graduate student in computer and electrical engineering at Duke. “We’re trying to transfer the knowledge of the relatively few autism experts available into classrooms and homes across the country. We want to give people tools they don’t currently have, because research has shown that early intervention can greatly impact the severity of the symptoms common in autism spectrum disorders.”

The study focused on three behavioral tests that can help identify autism in very young children.

In one test, an infant's attention is drawn to a toy being shaken on the left side and then redirected to a toy being shaken on the right side. Clinicians count how long it takes for the child’s attention to shift in response to the changing stimulus. The second test passes a toy across the infant's field of view and looks for any delay in the child tracking its motion. In the last test, a clinician rolls a ball to a child and looks for eye contact afterward - a sign of the child’s engagement with their play partner.

In all of the tests, the person administering them isn't just controlling the stimulus, he or she is also counting how long it takes for the child to react - an imprecise science at best. The new program allows testers to forget about taking measurements while also providing more accuracy, recording reaction times down to tenths of a second.

"The great benefit of the video and software is for general practitioners who do not have the trained eye to look for subtle early warning signs of autism," said Amy Esler, an assistant professor of pediatrics and autism researcher at the University of Minnesota, who participated in some of the trials highlighted in the paper.

"The software has the potential to automatically analyze a child's eye gaze, walking patterns or motor behaviors for signs that are distinct from typical development," Esler said. "These signs would signal to doctors that they need to refer a family to a specialist for a more detailed evaluation."


Category(s):Autism spectrum disorders

Source material from Duke University


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