In a breakthrough technique embraced across the world, La Trobe psychologist Dr Josephine Barbaro has determined a way to diagnose autism in babies as young as 12 months.
She has developed an accurate set of ‘red flag’ markers of the condition, which include a failure by babies to make consistent eye contact, to smile, show their toys to others, to play social games, point and respond when their name is called.
Swift diagnosis and intervention is critical because it maximised the developmental outcomes of children with autism by taking advantage of early brain plasticity.
Dr Barbaro, from the University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, is now training medical experts around the world in the use of her diagnostic method on children under two years of age.
Embraced by Chinese health authorities
She has just returned from working with Chinese health authorities and said it was exciting that early diagnosis criteria were making a difference.
‘All typically developing babies are pre-wired to be social, look at other people’s faces, learn from them and copy what they’re doing. Children with autism are not doing this – and we can now accurately identify this at a much younger age and take action,’ Dr Barbaro said.
Her work is helping educate maternal and child health nurses to use these criteria during regular health checks of all babies. Early detection is the key to intervention and often a better long-term outcome for children.
‘It can also help the family as a whole, decreasing their stress and helping them begin the adjustment period that follows the diagnosis,’ she said.
Dr Barbaro and her team are training doctors in Melbourne’s sister city Tianjin in China, as part of an Australia-China Science and Research Fund Group Mission.
They have helped train 300 doctors to monitor children’s development using the early autism identification program. So far 10,000 babies aged from 12 to 24 months have been checked. The majority of babies referred for follow-up via her test have been diagnosed as on the spectrum.
Seven-year surveillance trial
Based on these preliminary findings, the Tianjin government has agreed to conduct autism surveillance using Dr Barbaro’s program for every child born in the city for the next seven years.
The team is also training healthcare workers in Poland, Korea, Japan and Bangladesh. ‘So it’s something that can be used in developing as well as developed countries,’ Dr Barbaro said.
She is also continuing to work with maternal health nurses and clinicians to roll out the development of surveillance training across Australia in the coming year.
An estimated one in 100 children have an autism spectrum disorder. The lifelong developmental disability is characterised by difficulties with social interaction, verbal and no-verbal communication, restricted interests and repetitive behaviour. – Catherine Garrett