Web-based tool detects autism in minutes

Lianzi Fields
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Jenny McCarthy and Evan
Jenny McCarthy's son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism in 2005

Parents can now skip year-long waiting lists and harrowing trips to the clinician to find out if their child has autism.

Early diagnosis could be just a few minutes and clicks away, with the development of a fast and accurate web-based diagnostic tool by researchers at Harvard Medical School, which could reduce the time it takes to diagnose autism in young children by up to 95 percent.

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The tool involves a short set of questions and analysis of a home video clip of the individual being tested, which are assessed online based on algorithms that operate in a mobile architecture.

"We believe this approach will make it possible for more children to be accurately diagnosed during the early critical period when behavioural therapies are most effective," said Dennis Wall, associate professor of pathology and director of computational biology initiative at the Centre for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard, in a media release.

"With this mobilized approach, the parent or caregiver will be able to take the crucial first steps to diagnosis and treatment from the comfort of their own home, and in just a few minutes," he said.

Autism is a lifelong development disability that is often marked by social and behavioural difficulties, communication impairments, restrictive or repetitive interests, sensorial sensitivities.

Diagnosis of autism is a complex and subjective process that requires close analysis of the individual's behaviour.

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Typically, the evaluation process involves an Autism Diagnostic Interview, Revised (ADI-R) and/or the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS exam), which together can take up to three hours to complete.

The tests must be administered by a registered clinician and between initial warning signs and the wait for an appointment, a year or more may pass before a child is formally diagnosed..

To determine a shortened mechanism for these traditional tests, Wall and his colleagues collected the results from the Autism Genetic Research Exchange of over 800 individuals who had been diagnosed with autism by completing the ADI-R.

After analysing all 93-questions in the questionnaire, they found that seven were sufficient in accurately diagnosing autism at a rate close to 100 percent.

The accuracy of the seven question survey was validated against answers from more than 1,600 individuals from the Simons Foundation, plus further results from the Boston Autism Consortium of more than 300 individuals.

A similar technique was applied to the ADOS exam. By looking at more than 1,050 individuals with near perfect sensitivity, the researchers found that 8 out of 29 steps were sufficient in evaluating a child, and also discovered new pathways for diagnostic methods in the evaluation of short home video clips.

"This approach is the first attempt to retrospectively analyse large data repositories to derive a highly accurate, but significantly abbreviated classification tool," said Wall.

"This kind of rapid assessment should provide valuable contributions to the diagnostic process moving forward and help lead to faster screening and earlier treatment."

Wall and his team continue to evaluate these shortened diagnostic tools, and have made both survey and video site available to the public, as well as launching a Facebook page to gain publicity to further refine the test.

There is no single known cause of autism, but research has linked it to genetics rather than environment or social factors. It is estimated that 1 in 110 children in Australia have an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Watch: Signs of autism


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