Advances in early detection of Autism

Autism researcher Josie Barbaro

Identifying autism symptoms in babies

Dr Josephine Barbaro, Research Fellow at OTARC, made a breakthrough in the early diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as part of her PhD with her study, the Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS). From the existing literature and her own research, Dr Barbaro identified a set of behaviours or 'red flag' markers that are characteristic of children with ASD from as young as 12 months old. For example, when assessing children under 2 years old, ‘red flag’ markers could include decreased or inconsistent use of:

  • eye contact
  • gestures, like pointing at objects
  • response to being called by name
  • imitation or copying others' activities.

These 'red flags' were developed into three SACS checklists (a 12 month, an 18 month, and a 24 month), which were used by trained Maternal and Child Health Nurses to identify children at-risk for ASD between 12 and 24 months of age.

Children identified as at-risk on any of the SACS checklists were referred to the team at OTARC for a full diagnostic assessment – with the result that the majority of referred children were found to have an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The SACS checklists currently have the best psychometric properties of any ASD identification tool, showing that identifying 'red flags' is a very effective tool for identifying early which children are likely to have ASD.

Getting the word out

The SACS is now being replicated (in the Social Attention and Communication Study-Revised, 2013-current), and is also now being evaluated throughout Australia. It is also being evaluated in other cultures, with trials underway in Poland, Korea, Japan, Nepal, and China - preliminary results are promising.

Excitingly, a mobile application called ASDetect was also released in early 2016. ASDetect is based on the SACS checklists, and the app guides parents through the relevant checklist using a combination of videos and questions, as well as activities that can be done with their child. Once complete, parents receive an on-screen result of either `low' or `high' likelihood of autism, as well as a comprehensive formal assessment results email – this email can be taken to the family doctor to be discussed, and (if necessary) the doctor can then provide the next steps in accessing a formal ASD assessment.

To learn more about ASDetect:

To hear more about Dr Barbaro’s current research:

To learn more about the ‘red flags’ of ASD: