Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition, with a global prevalence estimated at 1 in 68 individuals. For a country like China with a population of 1.38 billion, the number of people potentially affected could be around 16 million. Detecting autism at a young age is critical, as early intervention can improve a child’s development and help reduce later adult disability.
“Early intervention in autism is crucial to improving the quality of life, but the average age of diagnosis is between 4 to 6 years,” says Dr Josephine Barbaro, Research Fellow at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) at La Trobe University. “Health care providers and parents needed to be aware of the signs of autism earlier, and for this reason we developed the Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS), bringing the age of diagnosis down to as early as 18-24 months.”
The SACS method is based on repeated developmental observations of a child, monitoring signs such as a failure by babies to make consistent eye contact, to smile, show their toys to others, point, to play social games and respond when their name is called. It has led to the development of ASDetect - an award-winning mobile app that gives parents access to information, videos, and signs to be aware of when monitoring their child’s development for signs of autism.
The success of the app and the surveillance tool has earned the team global attention, and Dr Barbaro and her fellow researchers at OTARC have been collaborating with researchers at Nankai University and Tianjin Women and Children’s Centre to implement the SACS screening tool throughout Tianjin, China, a city of 7.5 million people.
“The Tianjin Government has embraced the SACS surveillance method, and now every child born in Tianjin is assessed early for signs of autism,” says Dr Barbaro. “ We have helped train more than 600 doctors to monitor children’s development using the early autism identification program, and the majority of babies referred for follow-up have been diagnosed as on the spectrum.”
Future efforts will further develop the ASDetect app for the local Chinese market, including translating the resources into Mandarin and providing culturally appropriate materials. Efforts are underway to educate healthcare providers in Poland, Nepal, Korea, Japan and Bangladesh, and it is also one of ten finalists for the 2016 Google Impact Challenge, with a chance to win $750,000 to translate the app into five major languages.
“The assessment tool and the app has had a lot of positive feedback from countries all across the world,” says Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, Director of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre. “It’s encouraging to see such dedication in furthering the health care of children, and giving parents the proper resources to be better informed.”