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iPhone App Shows Promise for Screening Children for Signs of Autism

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In an article published in the open access journal npj Digital Medicine, a Duke University one-year study was done with a mobile phone app with 1,756 families and shows promise in detecting autism based on a child’s emotional reactions and facial expressions. The iPhone app, called Autism and Beyond, was built on Apple’s ResearchKit platform.

The app first administered caregiver consent forms and survey questions and then uses the phone’s camera to collect videos of a child’s reaction while they watch movies designed to elicit autism risk behaviors - such as patterns of emotion and attention—on the device’s screen. Behavioral coding software then automatically tracks the movement of “video landmarks” on their faces and quantifies the data.

Autism screening in young children is presently done in clinical settings, rather than the child’s natural environment, and highly trained people are needed to both administer the test and analyze the results. “That’s not scalable,” said New York University’s Helen Egger, M.D., one of the co-leaders of the study.

In one year, there were more than 10,000 downloads of the app, and 1,756 families with children aged one to six years participated in the study. Parents completed 5,618 surveys and uploaded 4,441 videos. Usable data were collected on 88 percent of the uploaded videos, demonstrating for the first time the feasibility of this type of tool for observing and coding behavior in natural environments.

Visit npj Digital Medicine to view the research study in full. Click here to view the Duke University article on the research study.

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