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Duke University Researchers Develop Groundbreaking App to Diagnose and Treat Autism

Researchers at Duke University have developed an app that captures the response of toddlers to on-screen stimuli and analyzes the information for potential signs of anxiety or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to a report this month by Duke, the app is the result of a collaboration between Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, and Guillermo Sapiro, James B. Duke professor of computer and electrical engineering.

While Dawson and Sapiro come from very different fields academically, their teams worked to create a set of movies that produced indicative responses in children, such as facial expression and attention. These movies can be shown to children on devices like tablets or phones, with a built-in camera that tracks the child’s gaze and facial movements. The data is then analyzed to estimate where the child is looking, in order to assess the possible diagnosis of autism.

Autism and Beyond, an early, free version of the app, was released in 2015 for iOs compatible devices. The original app wasn’t intended as a tool for diagnosing autism but was used by researchers to check the reliability of app-based questionnaires and facial expression video analysis for screening for autism and other developmental disorders.

Dawson’s earlier research focused on early detection and treatment of autism through intervention on the developing brain. Through her research, Dawson showed that symptoms of autism could be screened for before an infant’s first birthday. In an article for JAMA Pediatrics, Dawson and Sapiro explained that screening for autism has typically relied on reports from parents. If their responses indicate a certain number of symptoms, children are referred to a clinician for diagnostic assessment. According to Dawson and Sapiro, the main problem with this approach is its subjectivity. For example, more subtle signs of autism can be overlooked due to the lack of proper methods to objectively evaluate them. “Current methods of screening rely on parent report and are not as accurate as we would like them to be,” Dawson wrote. “Some parents have difficulty reading or understanding the questionnaire.”

According to Duke Chronicle’s report, Dawson and Sapiro’s collaboration could potentially change the course of autism screening. The researchers believe that in the future, their research will be used in common and clinical settings. Their app is currently being included in clinical trials for new autism spectrum disorder treatments. Thousands of 18-24-month-old toddlers are now able to use the app in Duke University clinics, thanks to funding from the National Institutes of Health.



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