Study: Phone app that screens for autism in children is beneficial

By Allen Cone
Study: Phone app that screens for autism in children is beneficial
An iPhone app creates landmarks on the child’s face for software analysis of facial expressions in screening for signs of autism Photo courtesy of Duke University

June 1 (UPI) -- An iPhone app that screens for signs of autism in young children was found to be scientifically reliable, easy to use and supported by caregivers, according to a study.

In 2015, researchers and software developers from Duke University and the Duke Medical Center introduced the free iOS app. In one year, the app was downloaded more than 10,000 times.


Duke researchers analyzed data from 1,756 families with children aged 1 to 6 years about the success of the app over one year. Their findings were published Friday in the journal npj Digital Medicine.

Autism spectrum disorder affects 1 in 59 children in the United States, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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"Current tools for objectively measuring young children's observed behaviors are expensive, time-consuming, and require extensive training and professional administration," the researchers wrote. "To address this gap, we developed mobile technology to collect videos of young children while they watched movies designed to elicit autism-related behaviors and then used automatic behavioral coding of these videos to quantify children's emotions and behaviors."


For example, after a short movie of bubbles floating across the screen, the video-coding algorithm looks for movements of the face that would indicate joy. In the study, children whose parents rated their child as having a high number of autism symptoms showed less frequent expressions of joy in response to the bubbles.

Parents completed 5,618 surveys and uploaded 4,441 videos, 88 percent of which were usable.

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"This demonstrates the feasibility of this approach," said study co-leader Dr. Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. "Many caregivers were willing to participate, the data were high quality and the video analysis algorithms produced results consistent with the scoring we produce in our autism program here at Duke."

Each test took about 20 minutes to complete.

After completing the questionnaire, participating families received feedback from the app about what the child's apparent risk for autism might be. They were encouraged to seek consultation from medical professionals if parents reported a high level of autism symptoms.

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"This technology has the potential to transform how we screen and monitor children's development," the researchers wrote.

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