An App for Autism Screening

As a toddler watches videos on a new Duke-developed app, sophisticated algorithms analyze “selfie”-camera recordings of her head movements and facial expressions for small but significant signs of autistic behavior, such as a lack of emotions, social-reference, or delayed response.

Data & the Duke Engineer - Read more about Duke Engineering's ambitious initiatives in data science education and researchTo date more than 2,000 people from the US to South Africa have downloaded the Apple ResearchKit “Autism & Beyond” app, which is being studied as a possible tool to expand autism screening and enable earlier diagnosis and intervention. It’s a critical need given that most children with autism aren’t diagnosed until age 5 or later. 

Developed by Duke ECE’s Guillermo Sapiro, Duke Health’s Dr. Helen Egger and Dr. Geraldine Dawson, and a team of over 20 programmers, scientists and students in close partnership with Apple, the new research app is not a diagnostic tool, but provides parents with information and encouragement to seek consultation with a care provider if the data appear to indicate their child may be at risk.

“Our goal is to develop a screening, like checking kids’ hearing or eyesight at schools,” said Sapiro. “They don’t get glasses; they get a referral.”

After validating the app’s feasibility as a screening tool, the team is starting large-scale clinical testing at sites in South Africa, Argentina, Singapore and the US. They’re also using the software as a springboard to develop similar screening tools for post-traumatic stress disorder and picky eating.

“If you look at the papers coming out from Duke in big-data science, in mobile health, you’ll see undergrads, grad students, developers, physicians, psychologists, social scientists and engineers all listed as contributors. That kind of integration is very unusual—and very Duke.”

Guillermo SapiroGuillermo Sapiro
Edmund T. Pratt, Jr. School Professor, ECE