The Social Attention and Communication Surveillance (SACS) tool
For early autism detection
Associate Professor Josephine Barbaro, OTARC Principal Research Fellow, has been working on the early signs of autism in babies and toddlers for more than 15 years. The SACS method identifies a set of behaviours or 'early markers' that are characteristic of children on the autism spectrum, from as young as 12 months old.
Originally implemented in Maternal and Child Health services in Victoria, the SACS method is now used across more than 11 countries.
We now offer training in the SACS Revised and SACS Pre-school tools.
View our training courses
New SACS research!
Research has found an early screening tool for autism is the world’s most effective.
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This program is developed by Associate Professor Josephine Barbaro, Principal Research Fellow and Registered Psychologist at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University, and co-founder and lead clinician in Australia's first 'Early Assessment Clinic' for autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
The Social Attention and Communication Surveillance (SACS) approach, developed during her PhD, has been translated into 8 languages and disseminated across 11 countries. The SACS was incorporated into the 7-year Tianjin Women and Child Health plan, China’s 4th largest city, where we trained 600 early childhood medical professionals in 2013 to monitor every baby born from 2013-2020 (700,000 in total). In Australia, the SACS has been used to monitor over 45,000 infants and toddlers in the Victorian and Tasmanian Maternal and Child Health (MCH) systems alone.
In September 2015, the Minister for Human Services in Tasmania (The Hon. Jacquie Petrusma) announced in Parliament that Tasmania was implementing SACS across the State.
In September 2018, the Victorian Government announced that all 1250 Victorian Maternal and Child Health (MCH) nurses will be trained using the SACS method to monitor babies for autism at their routine health checks between 12- and 24-months-of-age.
Based on the SACS method, ASDetect is a free mobile app that guides parents through age-appropriate assessments, using videos of autistic and non-autistic children to illustrate questions about social communication milestones. Parents receive an on-screen result of either 'low' or 'high' likelihood of autism, and a comprehensive formal assessment results email, which they can take to their family doctor.
With over 65,000 downloads since launch in February 2016, ASDetect has been translated into Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, bringing this ground-breaking early detection research to parents and caregivers around the world.
Here is one of the 30 videos in ASDetect that highlights some of the important social and communication behaviours of developing children
Visit https://asdetect.org for more information about the application.
In children under 2 years old, the ‘early markers’ include infrequent or inconsistent use of:
- eye contact
- gestures, like pointing at objects
- response to being called by name
- imitation or copying others' activities
These and other social communication milestones have been incorporated into 3 SACS assessments for children aged 12 months,18 months and 24 months, and used by trained Victorian Maternal and Child Health Nurses.
The SACS method currently has the best psychometric properties of any autism identification tool, with an accuracy of 83%.
Research papers – developmental surveillance
Barbaro, J., Masi, A., Gilbert, M., Nair, R., Abdullahi, I., et al. (2021). A Multistate Trial of an Early Surveillance Program for Autism Within General Practices in Australia [Study Protocol]. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 9(260).
Mozolic-Staunton, B., Barbaro, J., Yoxall, J., & Donelly, M. (2021). Monitoring children’s development in early childhood education settings to promote early detection of autism. Australasian Journal for Early Childhood.
Mozolic-Staunton, B., Donelly, M., Yoxall, J., & Barbaro, J. (2020). Early detection for better outcomes: universal developmental surveillance for autism across health and early childhood education settings. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 71, 101496.
Mozolic-Staunton, B., Donelly, M., Yoxall, J. & Barbaro, J. (2017). Interrater reliability of early childhood education professionals involved in developmental surveillance for autism spectrum disorder and related conditions. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 42(2), 61-68.
Barbaro, J. & Dissanayake, C. (2013). Early markers of Autism Spectrum Disorders in infants and toddlers prospectively identified in the Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS). Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice, 17, 64-86.
Barbaro, J., Ridgway, L., & Dissanayake, C. (2011). Developmental surveillance of infants and toddlers by Maternal and Child Health nurses in an Australian community-based setting: Promoting the early identification of Autism. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 26, 334-347.
Barbaro, J., & Dissanayake C. (2010). Prospective identification of Autism in infancy and toddlerhood using developmental surveillance: The Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS). Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 31, 376-385.
Barbaro, J. & Yaari, M. (2020). Study Protocol for an Evaluation of ASDetect - A Mobile Application for the Early Detection of Autism. 20(1), 21.
Research papers – intervention studies and outcomes of SACS identified children
Barbaro, J. & Dissanayake, C. (2012). Developmental profiles of infants and toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorders identified prospectively in a community-based setting. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 1939-1948.
Clark, M. L., Barbaro, J., & Dissanayake, C. (2017). Continuity and Change in Cognition and Autism Severity from Toddlerhood to School Age. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 328-339.
Clark, M. L., Vinen, Z., Barbaro, J., & Dissanayake, C. (2018). School age outcomes of children diagnosed early and later with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48, 92-102.
Luu, J., Jellett, R., Yaari, M., Gilbert, M., & Barbaro, J. (2020). A Comparison of Children Born Preterm and Full-Term on the Autism Spectrum in a Prospective Community Sample. Frontiers in Neurology: Pediatric Neurology, 11, 597505.
Whitehouse, A. J. O., Varcin, K. J., Alvares, G. A., Barbaro, J., Bent, C., et al. (2019). A randomised-controlled trial of a pre-emptive intervention for infants showing early behavioural risk signs of autism spectrum disorder. The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. 3(9), 605-615.
Whitehouse, A. J. O. Varcin, K. J., Pillar, S., Billingham, W., Alvares, G. A., et al. (2021). Pre-emptive intervention for infants showing early behavioral signs of autism. JAMA Pediatrics.
Research papers – gender differences of SACS identified children
Hollier, L. P., Joshi, R., Barbaro, J., Dissanayake, C (2018). Gender Differences during Toddlerhood in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Prospective Community-Based Longitudinal Follow-Up Study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48, 2619-2628.
Barbaro, J., & Freeman, N. (2021). Investigating gender differences in the early markers of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) in infants and toddlers. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 83, 101745.
Research papers – international implementation of SACS
Okuno, M., & Uehara, T. (2018). Early childhood behavioral features that discriminate autism from other developmental problems in Japan. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing 31(1):23-9.
Mohd Zambri, N., Lau LHS., Koh, HC., Yeleswarapu, SP., Daniel, LM., et al. (2019). Screening for Autism in Younger Siblings of Children with Autism: Preliminary Findings. Asia Pacific Autism Conference; Resorts World Convention Centre Singapore
Barbaro, J., Wang, C., Wang, J., Liu, G., Liang, Y., et al. (2020). A pilot investigation of the Social Attention and Communication Surveillance (SACS) tool for the early identification of autism in Tianjin, China (SACS-C). Frontier in Neurology, Paediatrics, 11, 1389.
Shrestha, R., Barbaro, J. & Dissanayake, C. (2021). Changes in knowledge on the signs of autism in young children (11-30 Months) among Female Community Health Volunteers in Nepal. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Shrestha, R., Dissanayake, C., & Barbaro, J. (2021). Implementing and evaluating Social Attention and Communication Surveillance (SACS) to prospectively identify autism in very young children in Nepal. Research in Developmental Disabilities.