Baby Steps: Detecting early signs of autism

A new app is being developed at the University of Iowa that could help doctors and researchers detect early signs of autism.

Autism isn’t typically diagnosed in children until they are around two to three years of age.

But through a new app called “Baby Steps,” researchers are hoping to identify early risk factors for autism so they can begin earlier treatment and intervention options for that child.

Dr. Lane Strathearn is a developmental pediatrician and is the director of the division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics and the physician director of the Center for Disabilities and Development at the University of Iowa.

He developed the idea for this app a few years ago and says the data collected from the app will help researchers understand some of the early risk markers for autism and other developmental disorders.

“One of the big questions we face in developmental pediatrics is the question of what causes autism, where it comes from and how we can identify it earlier so that we can provide services and resources to help these kids,” Strathearn said. “Because it seems as though from the research that’s been done, if you intervene earlier, the children tend to have a better outcome in the long run.”

The app will let users see their baby’s development during the first two years of their life. The user of the app will track important events after the baby is born such as when he or she can walk, talk, or can even play simple games. It even lets a user record videos of their baby and document important milestones like their smile or first words.

Those using the app will also receive free developmental screening so that mothers will get feedback on where their baby is developmentally over that time.

“And then if we do identify any red flags or risk markers, we’ll provide personalized advice for the families on where they can get further assessment and what resources are available in their local area,” Strathearn said.

The University of Iowa would like to have at least 13,000 women throughout the state of Iowa participating with this app.

“Because we’re hoping to look at a fairly uncommon condition, we have to have a large number of women to start so we can capture that relatively small number who are diagnosed with autism at two or three years of age,” Strathearn said.

Baby Steps now is collecting pilot data by surveying pregnant women and new mothers to see what features would be useful and would capture user’s interest and help them remain engaged on the use of the app.

“We’re finishing the development of the actual app itself based on that feedback,” Strathearn said. “We’re hoping over the next few months to get it out there for pilot testing before we launch it on a large scale throughout Iowa.”

Strathearn says he expects the app to be available in around six months and to hopes to be able to present the findings within the next five years.