New app scans faces of kids for signs of autism

Posted at 2:47 PM, Dec 31, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-31 16:54:57-05

Virginia Beach, Va. (WTKR) - A new app is now available that may screen for autism by reading the facial expressions of kids for emotional cues, and in the future it could be used to support wounded warriors.

The app, called "Autism & Beyond," was created by researchers and software developers at Duke University and Duke Medical Center with support from the Office of Naval Research.

The app has children complete a series of questionnaires and watch short videos designed to make them smile, laugh and be surprised. Parents or caregivers use an iPhone’s user-facing “selfie” camera to record children’s facial movements for evaluation by doctors, researchers and software.

The app's core technology is a mathematical algorithm that maps key landmarks on children's faces and assesses emotional responses based on movements of facial muscles.

“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,” said 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 says the app isn't a self-diagnosis resource but should be used to serve as a screening tool for autism and other developmental challenges.

Once the autism studies are complete, Sapiro hopes to eventually expand and tailor the app to conditions suffered by warfighters, including PTSD, TBI and depression.

The app is currently available for free download from the Apple App Store to families wishing to participate in a six-month medical research study by Duke University.