Scientists have developed a new smartphone app that may screen for symtoms of autism by reading children’s facial expressions for emotional cues.
“Not only could the app be used to learn more about childhood autism, it could possibly reveal signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) in warfighters - conditions that often have subtle symptoms and are difficult to diagnose,” said Predrag Neskovic, from US Office of Naval Research (ONR)’s Mathematical Data Science programme.
The app, called “Autism and Beyond,” was developed by researchers and software developers at Duke University and the Duke Medical Centre in US.
“Autism & Beyond” has children complete a series of questionnaires and watch short videos designed to make them smile, laugh and be surprised.
Parents or caregivers use a smartphone’s user-facing “selfie” camera to record children’s facial movements for evaluation by doctors, researchers and software.
The app’s core technical component is a complex mathematical algorithm that automatically maps key landmarks on children’s faces and assesses emotional responses based on movements of facial muscles.
“We analyse the video to track position and movement of the head and face, including the lips, eyes and nose - all of which indicate emotions,” said 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 towards 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,” said Sapiro.
Sapiro stresses the app is not 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 specialised testing.
Once the autism studies are complete, Sapiro hopes to eventually expand and tailor the app to conditions suffered by war-fighters, including PTSD, TBI and depression.
As with autism, facial expressions can indicate the presence of such disorders. For example, many individuals suffering from PTSD or depression smile often, but their grins tend to be forced and short.
Improved analysis of such facial expressions could lead to more accurate diagnoses by doctors and, consequently, enhanced treatment options for military personnel and veterans.