Could This App Change the Way We Diagnose Autism?

PHOTO CREDIT: Autism & Beyond
PHOTO CREDIT: Autism & Beyond

It’s 11:30 am on a Monday, we’re on the 30th floor of a fashionable New York City hotel, and Ricky Bloomfield is getting excited.

And given what he and his colleagues just showed me, I can’t blame him.

“We [took] an entire medical study and put it into an app,” says Bloomfield, an energetic pediatrician and the head of mobile technology strategy for Duke Medical Center.

The specific app that Bloomfield has previewed for me is called Autism & Beyond. It’s the result of a years-long project led by a team of Duke doctors, researchers, and programmers, including Helen Egger, who’s head of child psychology, and Guillermo Sapiro, an engineering professor. It’s one of several new apps that Apple is making available through its ResearchKit platform today.

And if the Duke team — and Apple executives, who hand-picked them — get their wish, the app could help transform how autism is diagnosed and treated around the world.

Autism & Beyond works like an elaborate, interactive selfie. The app is set up to play 20-minute videos while using an iPhone or iPad’s built-in camera to scan viewers’ facial expressions, analyze their microreactions, and then indicate if there’s a potential risk of autism.

It’s intended for parents to use with their children, who see videos of lights, sounds, and storytellers. The demo I get is far less comprehensive. But it’s a good example of how Autism & Beyond is designed to work.

When I smile, the dots that line the video version of my face turn green. When I frown, they shade red.

After the app collects enough of those visual patterns, it’s able to offer real-time and evidence-based feedback, such as whether a parent should seek out a doctor based on the child’s indicators for autism.

The app was created to provoke the same instinctual responses that a psychologist like Egger wants to gauge in a clinic, as she tries to diagnose autistic children. And the Duke researchers hope that parents will start using Autism & Beyond to build up a video library of a child’s reactions, which could help doctors prioritize the most at-risk children and bring them into the office for in-person diagnosis.

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SOURCE: Vox, Dan Diamond