Advances in early detection of Autism

Autism researcher Josie Barbaro

A decade-long research project

Dr Josephine Barbaro, Senior Research Fellow at OTARC, has been working on the early signs of autism in babies and toddlers for more than 10 years. The method she developed in the Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS) identified a set of behaviours or 'red flag' markers that are characteristic of children with autism from as young as 12 months old.

Originally implemented in Maternal and Child Health services in Victoria, the SACS method is now used in a variety of services in Poland, Korea, Japan, Nepal, and China.

A mobile application for parents and caregivers

Based on the SACS method, ASDetect is a free mobile app that guides parents through age-appropriate assessments, using videos of children both with and without autism 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 22,000 downloads since launch in February 2016, ASDetect is now being translated into Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, bringing this groundbreaking early detection research to parents and caregivers around the world.

'Red flags' or early signs of autism

In children under 2 years old, ‘red flag’ 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 81%, more than seven times more accurate than the next-best early detection tool.

Read about the reliability of early signs of autism (PDF)

Hear more about Dr Barbaro’s recent research (Soundcloud)

Watch a video about the ‘red flags’ of autism (YouTube)