La Trobe’s autism research on the global stage

Dr Josephine Barbaro is taking the autism research she began as a La Trobe student to the world. She is pictured (r) with Prof Cheryl Dissanayake at the recent iAwards.

When La Trobe researcher and alumnus Dr Josephine Barbaro took to the stage at the world’s largest tech conference this month, she was in impressive company.

Sharing the line-up at San Francisco’s Dreamforce conference was a who’s who of leaders and innovators, including philanthropist Melinda Gates, Leader of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and NASA astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. The musical entertainment was courtesy of a little band called U2.

Josie took to the stage representing La Trobe’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC), alongside the centre’s director Professor Cheryl Dissanayake. Together they told the story of OTARC’s ground-breaking autism app, ASDetect, and its role in helping parents identify autism earlier. The two-time award-winning app has already led to the early detection of hundreds of children with indications of autism, with the aim of reaching thousands more.

Josie said the presentation touched many of the audience members personally.

“When I was walking around speaking to people, and people came up to me after the presentation, it was clear that so many people are impacted by autism in one way or another,” she said.

“One of the people who came up to me was a friend of someone who helped build the app, and he has a child on the spectrum. He was amazed that the research has come this far because his family hadn’t been able to benefit from early detection at all.”

The ASDetect app is based on research Josie first conducted as a PhD student at La Trobe, which she continued throughout her time as Research Fellow. It also features videos Josie developed to make it easier for parents to identify indications of autism.

Cloud computing company Salesforce, which hosts the Dreamforce conference, helped develop the app as parts of its philanthropic model which allows staff to dedicate a portion of their time to not-for-profit projects.

Google shows its support for La Trobe’s autism app

Now, OTARC has another tech giant getting behind the app.

Google has named OTARC a finalist in this year’s Google Impact Challenge, which highlights 10 Australian innovations making a difference. Public voting closes on 25 October, at 11.59 AEDT, and the winner will receive a $750,000 grant to make their project a reality.

For OTARC, this grant would make it possible to translate the app into five other languages and roll it out overseas.

“The app is designed to empower parents by allowing them to benefit from our research via their smartphones,” Josie says. “So it doesn’t matter where you live, you can have access to world-class research. To have powerhouses like Google and Salesforce behind us could have a massive impact.”

For Josie, it’s promising to see La Trobe’s research increasingly recognised on the global stage.

“I think as Australian researchers we really have to advocate for the important work coming out of our country. It can be difficult to compete on the international stage sometimes due to our size, but just because we’re a small nation doesn’t mean our research isn’t at the same high standards, because it definitely is.”

Vote for OTARC in Google Impact Challenge

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