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Dennis Wall Wins IMFAR Award for Research on Quick Diagnostic Test

Promising diagnostic test for autism asks parents to answer 7 questions and upload short home video; more families needed to participate
May 09, 2013


With a simple checklist, college students quickly and accurately rated home videos such as this one for autism-related behaviors.

The average waiting time for an autism diagnosis is 13 months and requires that a highly trained professional administer one of two behavioral tests. The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) takes 90 minutes. The Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) takes up to three hours.

Dennis Wall, Ph.D., is leading a team at Harvard Medical School that is trying to clear the logjam with a short, practical screen for autism. At this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), Dr. Wall received the prestigious Slifka-Ritvo Innovation in Autism Research Award for this clinical research. The award comes with a research grant to further test the screen for reliability.

Dr. Wall directs Harvard Medical School’s Computational Biology Initiative. He is also an advisor for bioinformatics and genomics at Autism Speaks.

Early results suggest high accuracy
Dr. Wall's screening tool asks parents to answer seven questions and upload a 5-minute home video of their child in a social situation such as a play date or birthday party. With minimal training, college students score each video against a checklist for eight autism-related behaviors. In early assessment with more than 100 families, the short screen matched the results from a full clinical evaluation around 90 percent of the time.

Dr. Wall’s team developed the test by using “machine learning,” an automated approach for recognizing patterns. They used it to hone in on the most important information being gleaned by the ADOS and ADI-R diagnostic checklists. They then used this information to create the short parent questionnaire and develop simple instructions that nonprofessionals could use to evaluate the home videos.

Families invited to participate through website
To further test and improve their screening tool, Dr. Wall’s team is reaching out to parents whose children have received a full diagnostic evaluation for autism. Families can fill out the brief questionnaire and upload a home video at this website.

“The award is a tremendous honor and an opportunity to help move our work into clinical and practical settings where it will have real impact on families,” Dr. Wall says. “We hope further testing over the next several months will provide the data needed to begin offering this solution to families. Our goal is to make early detection and treatment a reality for families across the globe, and we hope this research will be one solid step forward towards that goal.”

Editor's note: Click here for complete coverage of the publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual and learn more about how Autism Speaks is taking a proactive role in helping ensure that it does not result in lost services to those affected by autism.