Autism screening in young children is presently done in clinical settings, rather than the child's natural environment.
A smartphone app can successfully screen young children for signs of autism, is easy to use for caregivers and can reliably produce scientific data, a study has found.
The study, published in the journal npj Digital Medicine, points the way to broader, easier access to screening for autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
The app first administers caregiver consent forms and survey questions and then uses the phone's 'selfie' camera to collect videos of young children's reactions while they watch movies designed to elicit autism risk behaviours, such as patterns of emotion and attention, on the device's screen.
The videos of the child's reactions are sent to the study's servers, where automatic behavioural coding software tracks the movement of video landmarks on the child's face and quantifies the child's emotions and attention.
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 analyse the results.
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, according to the researchers from Duke University in the US.
Parents completed 5,618 surveys and uploaded 4,441 videos. Usable data were collected on 88 per cent of the uploaded videos, demonstrating for the first time the feasibility of this type of tool for observing and coding behaviour in natural environments.
An app-based approach can reach into underserved areas better and make it much easier to track an individual child's changes over time, said Guillermo Sapiro, a professor at Duke.
"This technology has the potential to transform how we screen and monitor children's development," Sapiro said. The reported project was a 12-month study. The entire test took about 20 minutes to complete, with only a few minutes involving the child.
The app also included a widely used questionnaire that screens for autism. Based on the questionnaire, participating families received some feedback from the app about what the child's apparent risk for autism might be. If parents reported a high level of autism symptoms on the questionnaire, they were encouraged to seek further consultation with their healthcare providers.