Parents could assess children for autism with smartphones thanks to new AI tool

Autism takes many different forms – so many, in fact, that plenty of adults don't even realise they're autistic. Part of the reason for this is that diagnosing autism when it firsts manifests – usually under the age of five – is so tricky.

A new artificial intelligence tool looks set to change that. Researchers at the University of Geneva have developed an AI algorithm that can analyse children's non-verbal communication in short videos and use this to predict whether they are autistic or not.

Scientists can input a video to the algorithm, which then makes the child in the footage completely anonymous by animating all people on-screen into faceless digital 'skeletons'.

By assessing nothing but the movement of these 'skeletons', the AI is then able to accurately identify autism spectrum disorder. In a study involving 68 neurotypical children and 68 autistic children, the AI correctly identified autism in 80 percent of cases.

This technology would make it quick and easy for any parent to get an initial automated assessment of their child before confirming it with a specialist doctor. The research team behind it hope to develop a smartphone application that would allow anybody to use it confidentially.

"In 10 minutes, we can indeed obtain a first screening accessible to anyone, wherever they live," said study author Nada Kojovic. "This would allow parents worried about their young children to obtain an initial automated assessment of the symptoms of autism."

She continued: "It is of course not perfect but could constitute a first step to be confirmed by a consultation with a specialist."

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The AI algorithm uses a technique called machine vision. Essentially, the artificial intelligence is fed data of other images and video footage in order to 'train' it how to see.

In this case, half of all the children in the study generated the data through footage, which 'trained' the algorithm to tell the difference in behaviour between autistic and non-autistic children. The AI was then able to use this information to assess the other 68 children.

While many people with traits of autism face numerous challenges when it comes to social skills and communication, they may also possess some amazing strengths in terms of learning skills, logical thinking, and memory. Early diagnosis of the condition can help parents and teachers better support children as they grow up.

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