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Researchers aim for earlier autism diagnoses

Fast ForWord helps children with ASD improve their retention and memory skills.

With autism diagnoses on the rise, autism awareness organizations are banding together to increase early detection and education practices for students with the disorder.

According to the Center for Disease Control, roughly 1 percent of all children in the United States were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in 2009—an increase from the 1 in 150 children diagnosed in 2007.

Hoping children on the autism spectrum might be diagnosed at an earlier age, thereby providing more treatment options, the National Science Foundation has awarded $10 million to a conglomerate of research universities, headed by Georgia Tech, to develop a computer screening system for earlier autism diagnoses.

“The idea is to try to identify abnormalities in very young childhood development sooner than is currently possible and to try to do this for more children than it’s possible now,” said Ephraim Glinert, the program officer for Georgia Tech and its partner institutions.

Early autism detection has taken a front seat as autism awareness increases across the nation.

“If we can detect real problems very early, then it might be possible to treat them … to either eliminate the risk or reduce the severity of whatever problems there may be,” Glinert said. He said that as children grow older, it becomes more difficult to treat the symptoms of ASD.

The program being developed by Glinert and his research team will record everything a child does over a predetermined period of time using cameras and microphones, and then a computer system will process the data. The system will flag any sign of troubling behavior, at which point a doctor can examine a particular case.

“It’s impossible to even train enough clinicians to give everyone the attention and the quality [of] medical care that they really want,” Glinert said. He said he hopes computers will take the brunt of the burden, so that physicians will be able to focus on actual cases of ASD and not false alarms. Researchers also are hoping the system will pick up cues far earlier than a doctor would be able to.

“I think they’d like to get it down to before a child is even 2; very early in their development, when it’s too soon for a clinician to normally be able to identify what the problems are,” Glinert said. “If we could find a way to get a heads up on it from the computer that there may be an issue, then you’d of course bring in the live clinicians for those cases where it seems important.”

While these programs might provide help for children who have not yet been diagnosed, school districts and autism awareness groups are finding new ways to provide appropriate instruction to those already struggling with the disorder.

Marty Burns, a speech, language, and communication pathologist, tested the program Fast ForWord as part of a research trial in 1996. The software exercises parts of the brain’s left hemisphere that are responsible for auditory processing.

“[It helps children] hold sounds in their mind and listen to language, remember what they’ve heard, and be able to start using language to communicate more effectively—and then from there, learning how to read,” Burns said.

Fast ForWord users generally gain about two years in receptive language age, sometimes in just eight to 10 weeks.

“That’s remarkable, because there’s nothing else I’ve ever used that you can get that great of an improvement in receptive language skills in that short a period of time,” said Burns. “It also helps that their ability to remember things, so they can function better in a classroom.”

The software is not intended as a curriculum replacement, but rather a tool that lets students with ASD participate more in regular lessons.

“It’s designed to improve what we call brain fitness, as opposed to teaching content,” Burns said.

She gave an analogy of having students try out for a football team. “You could teach them football, or you could improve their fitness and strength and agility and then teach them football,” Burns said. “Fast ForWord products build brain capacity and efficiency, so they actually are helpful with any teaching because they’re targeted to improve the learner’s ability to learn in general.”

Burns said teachers do need to be trained on the software to use it properly, but the training process isn’t difficult.

While Fast ForWord was primarily used in medical settings in the 1990s, nearly 95 percent of its current use is now in the education system. More than 2 million children have used the system in all 50 states and nearly 40 countries.

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