Indian researchers develop app to identify autistic children



A team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay and AIIMS has developed an app that aims to bridge gaps in autism screening for families in low and middle-income countries.

The low-cost app called START (Screening Tools for Autism Risk using Technology) can be used by community healthcare workers to quickly and inexpensively identify children with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders in India, said the researchers, which also include those from the universities of London and Reading in the UK.

The app makes use of a series of tests that measure different domains of behavior associated with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. Children with neurodevelopmental conditions preferred looking at geometric patterns rather than social scenes, were fascinated by predictable, repetitive sensory stimuli, and had more trouble completing precise tasks with their hands.

The app also included questions for parents, combining all the scores to help distinguish autistic from non-autistic children. The families and healthcare workers using the app said START is easy to use, fun for children to take part in, and could be used in family homes even with background noise and distractions.

Researchers from India, the UK, and the US tested the app with 131 children aged between 2 and 7 years, living in low-resource localities of Delhi. The tests were carried out using START at the homes of the children, by non-specialist healthcare workers who have studied till high school.

Through a series of simple games, questions, images, and activities on a tablet computer – such as popping bubbles and looking at patterns and images. The app measured the social preference, sensory interests, and motor skills of the children.

The results, published in the journal Autism, showed that the app was 86 percent accurate in identifying children with any neurodevelopmental disorders, and 78 percent accurate in specifically identifying autism. This performance is significantly higher than standard screening assessments for neurodevelopmental disorders used by non-specialists.

According to Professor Bhismadev Chakrabarti, director of the Centre for Autism at the University of Reading, the results could help faster identification of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, in all parts of the world.

“Autism is diagnosed by highly trained professionals, but most autistic people live in parts of the world that harbor few or no such autism specialists, and with little autism awareness. So many autistic people go undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or misunderstood, so we designed the START app to identify autism and related conditions anywhere. The START app puts a successful screening tool for autism and related conditions into the hands of the people already working in communities for children’s health,” Chakrabarti said.


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