Health Magazine

Can Technology Aid in an Autism Diagnosis?

By Autismsciencefoundation @autismsciencefd

It’s 2022 and technology and smartphones or iPads are being used in multiple ways to help identify signs of autism for remote evaluations. This week’s blog discusses one of them, called CanvasDx which received FDA marketing authorization in June 2021.

By Lani Hessen, Sr. Director Patient Advocacy, Cognoa Inc[1] .

What are the current problems in autism evaluations and diagnosis? 

Can technology aid in an autism diagnosis?
Capturing behaviors through a smartphone

On average, parents first report concerns about their child’s development to their primary care provider when the child is 14 months old [1]. While parental concern is highly indicative of a potential autism spectrum disorder it is common for families to experience a prolonged wait before receiving their child’s diagnosis[2]. Delayed diagnosis can lead to missed opportunities to start ASD specific intervention during the early developmental period where it can have a greater benefit[2]  than later intervention [3–8]. While a reliable ASD diagnosis can be made for a child as young as 18 months, the average age of diagnosis in the United States remains very high at 4 years and three months [9–11]. This age has remained largely unchanged for over 20 years despite increased awareness of the value of early intervention [9]. On average, caregivers report a three year delay between the time of their first concern and their child’s eventual diagnosis. Some children, such as girls, those who are non-White, or those who live in rural or remote areas can wait much longer than this [12–15].

Many factors contribute to diagnostic delays. ASD evaluations are usually conducted by specialists with ASD diagnostic expertise. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these specialists to meet the growing need for ASD assessments. As a result, many families end up on long wait-lists [16]. If primary care providers could assess and diagnose more children in the medical home, this could decrease strain on our specialty services and shorten wait-times. However, current diagnostic tools [17] are difficult to use in primary care settings; they take a long time to administer, are best conducted in-person, and may require specialist training [18]. Primary care providers require efficient, practical solutions that equip them to diagnose more children in the medical home. In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they also require clinically validated ASD diagnostic tools that can be delivered remotely.

What is Cognoa and can they help?

Cognoa is a pediatric behavioral health company developing diagnostic and therapeutic products with the goal of enabling equitable access to care and improving the lives and outcomes of children and families living with behavioral health conditions, starting with autism.

Cognoa’s diverse team of experts includes data scientists, engineers, researchers and clinicians. Our medical and advocacy team has expertise across a range of disciplines including occupational therapy, psychology, child and adolescent psychiatry, nursing, pediatrics, and developmental disability. We are committed to listening and learning from the voice of the community.  

Did Cognoa talk to stakeholders while they were developing the tool?

We have spoken to families and heard them express frustration when primary care physicians do not take their concerns seriously. Additionally, families express concern about the lack of ASD specific education physicians receive. It often falls on caregivers to become the autism experts, and they may be left to coordinate their child’s care needs with minimal support. Navigating the diagnostic journey can be daunting due to conflicting advice, fragmented services and long wait-lists for specialist assessments. We have heard from families that they would welcome tools and research that could streamline this process. Additionally, self-advocates have expressed the need for a data driven approach that is inclusive of all presentations of ASD, thereby decreasing mis-diagnosis or delayed or missed diagnosis.

Primary care physicians have also expressed a number of concerns with the current diagnostic process including frustration over the length of time many families they refer are required to wait before receiving a specialist evaluation. Some primary care physicians have described lack of sufficient ASD specific training and tools as additional barriers to care. The primary care setting is also very time-pressured, and physicians have described how difficult it can be to carve out sufficient time to comprehensively evaluate, review results and discuss treatment plans with families [19,20]. 

How does this work?  What problem does it solve? 

The team at Cognoa has developed a digital diagnostic device called Canvas Dx to help address ongoing delays in ASD diagnosis and the lack of diagnostic tools available for primary care use. Canvas Dx is a prescription AI-based diagnosis aid intended to support primary care doctors to accurately and efficiently diagnose autism in children ages 18-72 months who are at risk for developmental delay based on a caregiver/parental or doctor concern. It falls under a class of products called software as a medical device (SaMD)[21], which includes software or mobile apps that are intended to treat, diagnose, monitor, mitigate, or prevent disease or other conditions. 

Canvas Dx makes use of a machine learning algorithm that was initially developed using patient record data from thousands of children with diverse conditions, presentations, and comorbidities who were either diagnosed with ASD or confirmed not to have ASD based on standardized diagnostic tools and representing both genders across the supported age range. The Canvas Dx algorithm has been iteratively improved and prospectively validated over the past 6-7 years prior to the pivotal study.[22–27]. In order to use Canvas Dx you need a prescription from your care provider and access to a smart-phone. The following information is then collected:

  • Parents/caregivers complete a questionnaire via the Canvas Dx caregiver-facing app and upload two short videos of their child. The questionnaire takes about 10 minutes to complete.
  • These videos are scored for behavioral features of autism by trained video analysts.
  • A doctor completes a questionnaire based on a visit with the parent/caregiver and child. The visit can be remote or in-person.

Canvas Dx uses AI to analyze these three inputs, and if the information is sufficient, it generates a result that the doctor uses as an aid to diagnose or rule out autism. Or it may result in the need for further evaluation The device is not intended for use as a stand-alone diagnostic device but to complement clinical expertise.

5. Who should be asking for a prescription for this? 

Your primary care physician can prescribe Canvas Dx if they think it is suitable. It is designed to be used for children aged 18-72 months who are at risk for developmental delay based on a caregiver/parental or doctor concern.

Should I ask my doctor about it? 

You can speak to your doctor about concerns that you have for your child’s development and start a conversation about next steps to get your concerns resolved. 

What do I need to do? 

Bring your child to well-child visits and express any concerns that you have about your child’s development.

What happens after I finish it?  Who looks at it?  What does it tell me?

Once all 3 inputs are complete, Canvas DX produces a report for your primary care provider to review with you. The report will provide one of three outputs: Positive ASD, Negative ASD, or No Result.  

Further action can then be taken based on your care provider’s clinical judgment. For example, a positive result, combined with your provider’s own judgment, may prompt your pediatrician to make referrals to autism specific interventions in your area. A negative result, in combination with your provider’s clinical judgment, may prompt your pediatrician to begin to address your concerns via other avenues that are specific to the type of developmental delay that you are concerned about. Your provider may recommend further evaluation by a specialist.

Then what?  

Your care provider, as well as local and national autism advocacy and education groups, like ASF, can help to guide you toward next steps no matter what the outcome of the test.


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