App screens for autism by reading facial expressions

The app tracks key facial features and is capable of anonymizing participants

Autism & Beyond is a new study of childhood mental health powered by Apple's ResearchKit. Intended to detect autism and other developmental challenges, app users can participate in the study which aims to provide new technological tools to help parents screen their children at home.

The study and the associated app are the product of a partnership between the Duke Medical Center and Duke University as well as technologies developed by Apple (ResearchKit) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

"We analyze the video to track position and movement of the head and face, including the lips, eyes and nose, all of which indicate emotions," says Dr. Guillermo Sapiro, a professor at Duke University, who developed the algorithm. "For example, while watching stimuli like a funny video, does the child smile, look toward the caregiver or ask the caregiver to view the video as well? We study all of that. Lack of emotion and social sharing are possible characteristics of childhood autism."

Sapiro stresses the app isn't a self-diagnosis resource, but is intended to serve as a potential screening tool for autism and other developmental challenges, and encourage users to contact a physician for specialized testing.

The key technology that makes this app possible, the development of which was sponsored by the ONR, is a complex mathematical algorithm that automatically maps key landmarks on children's faces and assesses emotional responses based on movements of facial muscles.

According to Sapiro, this same tech could be further developed to help screening for a wide array of other issues, including conditions suffered by soldiers such as PTSD, TBI and depression. It is hoped that improved analysis of such facial expressions could lead to more accurate diagnoses by doctors and, consequently, enhanced treatment options for military personnel and veterans.

For families wishing to participate in the study, the Autism & Beyond app can be downloaded from iTunes for free.

You can learn more about the Autism & Beyond application and study in the video below.

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