News Release: Research, School of Medicine

Apr. 15,  2009

Researchers Test Five-Minute Autism Assessment to Help Identify Infants and Toddlers at Risk

The Emory Autism Resource Center (EAC) and the Health Systems Institute at Georgia Institute of Technology have collaborated to develop an assessment designed to help pediatricians identify children at risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A pilot test on the Rapid Attention Back and Forth Communication (Rapid ABC) screener is being conducted at EAC and Georgia Tech.

Guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that pediatricians screen infants for ASD during their 18-month and 24-month well baby visits. A typical evaluation to diagnose ASD takes from two to four hours to complete. The goal of this study is to structure a screening technique and method of scoring that will make it as easy as possible for pediatricians to assess a baby’s risk during a regular checkup.

The Rapid ABC screener is designed for use in a pediatrician’s office. The test takes approximately three to five minutes to complete.

"We know that physicians have limited time to spend with their patients, but we also know that it is extremely important that ASD is detected early," says Opal Ousley, PhD, principal investigator of the study and assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine. "In order to get the best results, children with developmental problems should be exposed to an intervention program while they are very young."

The Rapid ABC includes five activities that the administrator initiates with the child that test gesturing, attention level, body language and eye contact.  Research has shown that lack of gesturing (such as finger pointing) and eye contact can be precursors for ASD. 

Once the screening process is completed, the information is scanned and then scored by a special software program. Data is generated about the child’s performance for the physician to share with the parents. Depending on the outcome, a referral may be made for further testing, or the doctor may suggest that the parents observe the child’s behavior and have the child re-tested at a later visit.

Once the child's data is collected, it sits in a secure repository and is automatically accessed when the child is screened again.

"Another advantage of our program is that it doesn't assume continuity of care," says Rosa I. Arriaga, PhD, co-principal investigator of the study and senior research scientist, School of Interactive Computing and director of Pediatric Research, Health Systems Institute at Georgia Institute of Technology.

"Research suggests that children diagnosed with ASD may show regression on a variety of behaviors," explains Arriaga. "This could be missed if a child goes to two different pediatricians during this period of time. The Rapid ABC could alert doctors to regression in the context of not only the 18 and 24-month well baby visit, but any time the test is administered during the child's early years."

"The CDC reports that one in one-hundred-fifty children in the United States has some form of autism spectrum disorder," says Ousley. "This technology has the potential to give pediatricians an efficient way to identify these children at a time when they can benefit the most."

For more information, contact Jenny Mathys at 404-727-8350 or go to This study is supported by a seed grant from Emtech Biotechnology Development, Inc.


The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include schools of medicine, nursing, and public health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; the Emory Winship Cancer Institute; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.3 billion budget, 17,000 employees, 2,300 full-time and 1,900 affiliated faculty, 4,300 students and trainees, and a $4.9 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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