Supporting parents of children on the autism spectrum

A digital screening app enables parents to take positive steps to help their children.

Associate Professor Josephine Barbaro is a Principle Research Fellow at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe , and co-founder of Australia's first Early Assessment Clinic for autism.

As a PhD student, Associate Professor Barbaro developed an early autism detection tool called SACS (Social Attention and Communication Surveillance). It identified a set of behaviours or 'flags' that are characteristic of children on the autism spectrum from as young as 12 months old.

Associate Professor Barbaro used this tool to develop a free app called ASDetect, which guides parents through age-appropriate assessments, using videos of children on or off the spectrum to illustrate questions about social communication milestones. The success of the app is evident in its popularity, with over 60,000 downloads in Australia since its launch in February 2016.

For Associate Professor Barbaro, the goal of the app was clear. "I wanted to develop an app that parents could use at home, so they could explore their concerns in the comfort of their own home, watch videos of autistic children and non-autistic children and which child might be more similar to their child, and remove the ‘wait and see’ barrier that often happens at the doctor’s office. For under-served communities, rural and remote communities, it can be really difficult to go to your doctor."

In 2016, the team behind ASDetect translated the app into other languages. They won a Google Impact Award in 2016 to translate the app into Mandarin and Spanish. They are also working on developing a professional version of the app for health, medical and early education professionals.

The real beneficiaries of the app, however, are parents and their children. The app’s ability to detect a ‘high likelihood’ of autism appeals to parents looking for practical, authoritative resources. Associate Professor Barbaro notes that ninety per cent of all children that receive a ‘high likelihood’ rating on the app end up with a diagnosis of autism, while about fifty per cent of parents who use the app already have concerns about their child’s development.

"We know that the earlier the child is assessed, and the earlier the child undertakes early supports and services, the better their outcomes long term."

User surveys demonstrate the impact the ASDetect app has had on parents with children on the spectrum has been significant.

"Parents have reported very positive results in that it’s helped them to have a conversation with their doctor. If it wasn’t for our app, their child wouldn’t have been diagnosed so early."

  • Find out more about autism research at La Trobe here.