July 2021

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Health Capsule

App Helps Screen for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Researchers designed an app to help identify toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD can cause problems with communication and social behaviors. Symptoms usually appear before a child turns two. But ASD can be tricky to diagnose.

The new app tracks eye movements while toddlers watch specially designed videos on a tablet or smartphone. Past studies found that toddlers with ASD tend to prefer looking at objects instead of people. The videos have people on one side of the screen—like a man blowing bubbles or two women talking—and objects on the other. The app measures the time spent looking at each.

The research team tested the app with about 1,000 toddlers at pediatrician visits. The children were 16 to 38 months old.

Of the toddlers in the study, 40 were diagnosed with ASD. The app predicted who would be diagnosed with 90% accuracy.

Larger studies are needed to further test the app. If effective, it could help diagnose ASD early. This allows children to get treatment earlier.

“We hope that this technology will eventually provide greater access to autism screening, which is an essential first step to intervention,” says Dr. Geraldine Dawson of Duke University. She co-led the study with Dr. Guillermo Sapiro. “Our long-term goal is to have a well-validated, easy-to-use app that providers and caregivers can download and use, either in a regular clinic or home setting.”