Apps that can detect a person's facial expression and emotional response may soon become helpful to identify signs of autism spectrum disorder among children. Scientists are reportedly working on these lines at a North Carolina university.

The prototype of the app has already been developed and it's in the first phase of testing. The app uses complex mathematical algorithms for automatically detecting a child's expressions and emotional cues by analyzing the muscle movements of the face. People interested to participate in a six-month research can contact the developer team and download the app on their iPads and tablets. Children joining the study will be given a short video which has been designed to trigger emotional responses and / or social interactions. The app, using the front camera of the iPad or tablet, will then measure the child's reaction to the videos being played via machine learning and analysis.

Study of emotions is a key component of the app. It works by following some domestic landmarks. These can be automatically detected by the algorithm in the app, after classifying the position of the head and the emotional response triggered.

The app, as of now, is suitable for children up to six years of age. Its components, however, differ depending upon the actual age of the child.

Autism spectrum disorder usually appears during infancy or early childhood. It's characterized by some general symptoms like failure to make eye contact, not respond when his / her name is called out, play with toys in an unusual or repetitive way, or face difficult when moving around, even within a designated area.

Scientists involved in developing the app, say that the software has not been designed to work as a self-diagnostic resource. Rather, it can be used as a screening tool to detect autism spectrum disorder. The scientists said that in future, the app may be used to screen and detect other developmental and health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and even traumatic brain injuries.

But it's too early to speculate whether the app will be effective for the purpose for which it's being developed. There's no particular medical test which can confirm the presence of autism spectrum disorder in a child. Detection is always symptom-based and the therapy methods vary according to each particular case. According to conservative estimates, about one percent of the world population, which includes more than 3.5 million in the US, is affected with autism spectrum disorder.

Therapists and educators say that while an app may be able to pick up the differences among people having PTSD or autism spectrum disorder, it will be foolhardy to predict whether these differences can conclusively prove the presence of these conditions. Each person with autism is likely to have symptoms different from the other. Even the so-called “common” symptoms could vary widely.

But it's encouraging suddenless that studies are being carried out to detect the presence of autism spectrum disorder better. The therapies can only be suggested after proper detection. With the disorder largely going undiagnosed, development of the app could have been a step in the right direction.