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iPhone app spots AUTISM by tracking kids’ faces as they watch videos

New iPhone app can spot AUTISM by tracking kids’ faces as they watch videos – but officials warn too much screening could lead to false positives

  • The free app monitors the child’s facial expressions as they watch clips
  • It registers tell-tale signs of the subtle disorder that is hard to spot even in a clinical setting 
  • Autism screening is controversial: official guidelines say too much screening is not useful, but the top pediatrics board endorses screening all children
  • The rate of autism in US children has more than tripled since 1998 
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Parents can now download an iPhone app to screen their children for autism.

The tool uses the phone’s camera to track the child’s facial movement as they watch short clips on the screen.

Specially-designed coding software detects tell-tale movements in the child’s face that are signs of the disorder, which could takes weeks of sessions for trained medical professionals to spot.

The app is expected to reignite controversy between the United States Preventive Services Task Force and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which disagree on screening. 

The USPSTF warns against widespread screening of children for autism, after a review found it leads to more false positives and hydochondria.

The AAP, which is also seen as a standard-setter for US health, believes all children should be screened before the age of two. 

The app (pictured) is expected to reignite controversy between the United States Preventive Services Task Force and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which disagree on screening

Earlier this year, new CDC data revealed the rate of autism diagnoses had increased 15 percent in just 12 months.

In 2017, one in 68 children was diagnosed with the disorder. That went up to one in 59 this year. 

It was hardly an isolated spike. 

The rate has more than tripled since 1998, particularly among black and Hispanic communities.  

Part of this is to do with an improvement in methods used to diagnose children (as well as an increase in certain risk factors, like premature birth and having an older father). 

These steadily climbing figures, particularly in low-income communities, drove researchers at NYU Langone Health and Duke University to investigate a free home-testing method. 


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Autism signs and symptoms

According to the CDC, people with autism have trouble with social, emotional and communication skills that usually develop before the age of three and last throughout a person’s life. 

Specific signs of autism include: 

  • Reactions to smell, taste, look, feel or sound are unusual
  • Difficulty adapting to changes in routine
  • Unable to repeat or echo what is said to them
  • Difficulty expressing desires using words or motions
  • Unable to discuss their own feelings or other people’s
  • Difficulty with acts of affection like hugging
  • Prefer to be alone and avoid eye contact
  • Difficulty relating to other people
  • Unable to point at objects or look at objects when others point to them

And their findings, published this week in the journal npj Digital Medicine, found it to be a success. 

The one-year study involved 1,756 families with children aged between one and six years old. 

The vast majority found the app was easy to use, and cross-examination by the team found the results were accurate.

It chalks with the USPSTF, which advises the American public on health standards and practices. 

In the latest guidelines, published in 2015, officials found that there is not enough evidence to show that broadening the reach of these improved diagnostic methods would be useful.

‘Our recommendation is not a recommendation against screening, but a call for more research,’ Dr David Grossman, vice chair of the USPSTF, told Reuters. 

The researchers behind the app, unsurprisingly, see it from a similar perspective to the AAP.

‘We found that this app provided data consistent with what we see in a traditional clinical research setting,’ co-author Helen Egger, MD, chair of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, said.   

‘Many caregivers were willing to participate, the data were high quality, and the video analysis algorithms produced results consistent with the scoring we produce in our autism program here at Duke,’ said fellow author Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development and co-leader of the study.

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