Detecting autism early in the life of a child can have a profound impact on their development. "The brain is very malleable, and if we can get in early, we can intervene," says professor Cheryl Dissanayake, director of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
Yet early detection screening tests lag behind the latest research. And while the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all children receive autism screenings at 18 and 24 months of age, there are still doctors who say that an accurate test can’t be performed until a child is as old as 5.
At the Dreamforce Salesforce software conference, Dissanayake and Dr. Josephine Barbaro introduced ASDetect, a free autism detection app for iPhones and Android smart phones that helps identify early signs of autism for children age 11 to 30 months. The two researchers emphasized that early autism assessment should be viewed as vital to childhood health care, just like hearing and vision tests.
According to Dissanayake, early intervention gives parents and caregivers an opportunity to help their children with specialized training and the right tools. "They can gain intellectual abilities and get a job. They can learn adaptive skills to cope with the world. That is huge. "
The ASDetect assessment takes 20 minutes to complete. Parents or caregivers using the app answer a series of questions tied to videos of autistic and non-autistic children ages 12, 18, and 24 months. One clip features an ASD child who does not make eye contact with the clinician during play but focuses solely on the toy. In another scene, a child plays with the same toy but makes constant eye contact with the adult.
After viewing the videos and answering up to 15 questions, the replies are sent to an OTARC database. Next, the app sends an email notification saying whether or not their child has a high or low likelihood of autism based on the university’s research. "We stress that this is one diagnosis and encourage the parent to seek a formal assessment from the doctor," says Barbaro.
Launched in Australia in February, the app has had over 10,000 downloads—with the majority of users from Australia, followed by Russia. Some 4,500 children have gone through the complete assessment on the app. Aiding the researchers in building the app was a team of eight Salesforce employees who used their company-paid volunteer time to work on the technology using Salesforce software.
There are other autism detection tests available on the web or as apps, but most are text-based surveys. And few are backed by concrete research to derive results. ASDetect, meanwhile, is based on 10 years of findings from Barbaro’s research studying 38,000 children ages 12 to 24 months from Melbourne, Australia. Children displaying signs of autistic behavior were carefully monitored, and some 300 nursing professionals were trained to assess and identify early markers for autism. In a follow up study, the pool of autistic children who were helped early in life revealed stronger intellect and rates of intellectual disability plummeted from 64% at 2 years old and 8% at 7 to 9 years old, according to Barbaro.
The result, according to Barbaro and Dissanayake, is that their tool is more than seven times more accurate than other tests on the market today.
Next, the OTARC team hopes to extend the assessment questions for children up to age five. The team would also like to develop this app in multiple languages including Mandarin, Spanish, Indonesian, Japanese, and Polish. The videos would be filmed in these native countries using toys, songs, and culturally relevant words and social cues.
"We selected the languages in countries where we have existing collaboration," said Dissanayake. "It is really important to engage with people in the ground. We need the champions so something like this takes off. "
OTARC is one of the 10 finalists vying for a cash award for the Google Impact Challenge in Australia. Anyone in the world can vote for its favorite socially minded nonprofit by October 26. The top four winners will each get a check for $750,000.
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