Beginning Thursday, a ResearchKit app called "Autism & Beyond" is being offered from the Apple App Store for use on iOS devices. Apple ResearchKit is a new open-source framework developed by Apple that allows researchers to create app-based studies with a global reach.
The free program from Duke is not a diagnostic tool. It is intended to test the reliability of smart phone questionnaires and video analysis of facial expressions as a possible screening tool for autism and other developmental disorders of children.
Parents and children will interact with questionnaires and videos on the app and then receive some feedback, such as how to deal with tantrums if that's an issue, or what the child's apparent risk for autism might be. In some cases, families will be encouraged to seek further consultation with their health care providers.
"You can't diagnose a child with a video screen," said Helen Egger, MD, chief of Duke's Division of Child and Family Mental Health and Developmental Neuroscience and a co-leader of the research team. "We're interested in getting to a place where we could use the data we're collecting to give individual advice. But we're not there yet."
"Our goal is to develop a screening, like hearing or eyesight at schools," said Guillermo Sapiro, PhD, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. "They don't get glasses; they get a referral."
The app was developed over four months of intense work by a large team of Duke programmers, scientists and students who worked in close partnership with Apple. The team behind this app envisions developing related apps to study temper tantrums, picky eating and anxiety, Egger said.
With hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads in use around the world, app-based health studies such as this enable researchers to measure more diverse patient populations faster and more affordably, said Ricky Bloomfield, MD, director of mobile technology strategy for Duke Health. Patient recruitment and informed consent should also be easier through the devices, he said.