According to the Mayo Clinic, autism is a serious neurodevelopmental disorder which impairs a child's ability to communicate and interact with others and with the environment and can significantly impair his or her social skills, behavior and overall function. However, it has been found that early detection and intervention services can have a profound and positive impact on a child's life. The introduction of a new Apple app to help parents screen their children for autism is coming at a perfect time, just as the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force is demanding further proof that universal screening of toddlers for autism is a worthwhile endeavor.

Apple's new app is called "Autism and Beyond" and was developed in part by Duke University. This device allows parents, in the comfort and privacy of their own home, to play videos of lights, sounds and storytelling for their children while the iPhone's built in camera does scans of the children's faces, testing and analyzing facial expressions and micro-reactions and sending out an alert if it concludes that the child might be at risk for autism. This product does NOT diagnose: it is meant to prompt parents to talk to their doctors about their concerns and get their child screened.

This introduction is coming at an interesting time: the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force has recently drafted a controversial statement that there is not sufficient evidence to warrant universal screening for 18 and 24-month olds in absence of raised concerns. The draft states that the committee "concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harm of screening for ASD in children for whom no concerns of ASD have been raised...".

This has met with sound criticism from groups like the American Academy of Pediatricians, who have argued for years for the universal ASD screening of toddlers, and by individual physicians like Dr. Aaron Carroll, who in a recent piece on this issue in the New York Times, declared that he is for universal ASD screening based on four criteria: that the condition is serious and prevalent, that there are cost-effective and simple ways to screen, that early diagnosis makes a difference in this disease and that screening motivates patients (or in this case their parents) to seek further treatment. He goes on to note that, without the approval from the Task Force, the screening is not covered by the Affordable Care Act -- and that lack of reimbursement will lead to fewer screenings and to a delay in treatment.

And for autism, a delay in treatment can be critical. As the WebMD site notes that evidence is mounting that early autism intervention programs like the Early Denver model do in fact make a difference in the functionality of autistic children. It has been found that the Early Denver model, which calls for 20 hours of one-on-one treatment with a specialist as well as therapeutic play sessions with a trained parent or caregiver, can raise a child's IQ and lead to more adaptive behavior and increase response to social information, which is needed to develop interpersonal skills. In short, early intervention can allow children to better overcome this disability -- but this can only happen if they are first screened and diagnosed.

It should also be noted that another good reason to screen for ASD is to help differentiate it early from another common neurological disorder of childhood: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to Healthline, there are some similarities between autism and ADHD symptoms, including problems with focus, concentration, staying on task and excessive talking. It is important, however, to be able to distinguish between these two disorders, as they are treated very differently.

In short, this new Apple app gives parents unprecedented opportunity than ever to assess their children for this neurological disorder -- and such assessment may become more important than ever if fewer screenings take place in the wake of Task Force recommendations. The stakes are high: and what is at stake is the chance for kids with autism to improve their functionality and overall quality of life through high-quality early intervention.

Author's Bio: 

Brian Wu graduated with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Physiology and Neurobiology. Currently, he holds a PhD and is an MD candidate (KSOM, USC) in integrative biology and disease. He is also an experienced writer and editor for a number of prestigious websites and is the founder of Health Stories for Kids ( Brian values the ability of all ages to learn from the healing power of stories. His mission is to write about health conditions, educational topics and life situations in an entertaining way in order to help children understand their own health conditions and daily circumstances.