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Prototype Mobile App Screens Children at Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Modern technology equipment for monitoring the health. Smartphone, smartwatch. Blue background.Set of colored flat icons

According to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, a mobile app can distinguish toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from typically developing toddlers based on their eye movements. They observe the toddlers while they are watching videos during their pediatric visit. This is because toddlers with ASD have distinctive eye-gaze patterns and reduced attention to social stimuli. They can also barely coordinate gaze with speech sounds.

The study found that the app deployed on an iPhone or iPad reliably measures both known and new gaze biomarkers that distinguished toddlers with ASD vs typical development. This method may have the potential for developing scalable autism screening tools. It can possibly apply to a natural environment and enable data sets compliant to machine learning.

The current study enrols 933 toddlers ages 16 to 38 months during a well-child primary care visit. Of these children, 40 were later diagnosed with ASD. They view on a mobile device short videos of people smiling and making eye contact or engaging in conversation.

Researchers record the children’s gaze patterns with the device’s camera and measure them using computer vision and machine learning analysis. Children with ASD were less likely than typically developing children to focus on social cues and visually track the conversations in the videos.

In the future, the mobile app can screen infants and toddlers for ASD and refer them for early intervention when chances for treatment success are greatest. However, equipment used for visual tracking is expensive and requires specially trained personnel, limiting its use outside of laboratory settings.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today. During a study period of 2009-2017, about 1 in 6 (17%) children aged 3–17 years were diagnosed with a developmental disability, as reported by parents. These include autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, blindness, and cerebral palsy.

World Health Organisation (WHO) states that children with ASD have some degree of difficulty with social interaction and communication. Other characteristics are atypical patterns of activities and behaviours, such as difficulty with transition from one activity to another, a focus on details and unusual reactions to sensations. While studies have found that the average human brain is hard-wired for social cues, with a person’s gaze automatically focusing on social signals.

The abilities and needs of people with autism vary and can evolve over time. While some people with autism can live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Autism often has an impact on education and employment opportunities. In addition, the demands on families providing care and support can be significant. Hence, individuals with ASD can utilise technology to better their lives.

Autism Speaks mention several ways technology can empower individuals with ASD. In communication, many apps and built-in features of these devices can help support individuals with ASD at all levels and abilities. One app for example could be geared toward a nonverbal child or adult, while another can help with social cues for an individual with strong verbal communication skills.

Visual schedules on tablets can be a great tool to help children complete tasks and work on skills like self-care and daily living. A visual schedule for a morning or evening routine can them learn to manage time well. Those who have more difficulty communicating can use technology to make their voices heard regarding decisions, which helps foster the self-advocacy skills that are so important as they age into adulthood.

Children with ASD can also use their iPad or their favourite game app as a reward for positive behaviour like the completion of a chore or a homework assignment. They can also use video modelling which is a method that involves teaching skills in a visual way

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