Newswise — A team of researchers was awarded funding to build a video-based decision-support system aimed at improving diagnosis time for rural Alabama children showing signs of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

“This is a research project, but it is also big for rural health and engaging underserved areas around the state,” said Dr. Dan Albertson, primary investigator for the research. “Autism diagnoses in rural areas can range from 5-6 years. With this system in place, not only is there is an increased awareness of autism in the rural clinics we are working with, but, at a minimum, we consider this system a move toward removing the one-year wait-list to receive advice and expertise from the autism clinic here at The University of Alabama.”

Albertson is an assistant professor and coordinator for distance education in the School of Library and Information Studies, part of UA’s College of Communication and Information Sciences.

The project involves processing and organizing videos to assist rural physicians with making appropriate referrals for children who demonstrate early red flags for autism. The funding of $49,532 for the project is provided by the Southeastern/Atlantic Region of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, part of the National Library of Medicine, through a subcontract with the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Doctors will be provided equipment to make recordings of patients showing signs of autism and will be able to securely send the videos to the University’s Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the departments of psychology and communicative disorders in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, for analysis.

The center will return processed versions of the videos with comments and red-flag indicators from psychologists, speech therapists and a University Medical Center pediatrician, creating an organized database of various types of behaviors to look for and further system support to diagnose and treat patients exhibiting them.

Dr. Angela Barber will lead the team of professionals at the UA ASD Clinic providing feedback to physicians regarding children’s videotaped observations. She also will train a staff member at each participating physicians’ office to collect a natural sample of the child’s communication and play skills to be observed at the UA clinic.

“This project creates a unique opportunity for physicians to observe typical social-emotional milestones as well as red flags of autism in their own patients,” Barber said. “Further, physicians can use the video feedback provided by the UA ASD Clinic as a framework to discuss a child’s individual strengths and concerns with families and to support the decision to refer a child to early intervention.

“Most importantly, this study will identify children earlier who are at risk for autism or communication impairments, thereby significantly enhancing a child’s potential to have optimal communication, social and educational outcomes.”

Dr. Lea Yerby, assistant professor in UA’s department of community and rural medicine, said the project could serve to greatly improve quality of life for children with ASDs in rural counties.

“The project uses new technology to give rural children access to quality developmental healthcare,” said Yerby, who assisted in making contact with the participating physicians. “This access allows for early identification of autism or other concerns and will hopefully remove the disparity of diagnosis delay and direct the children to early intervention, which will give them the same fighting chance for quality of life and success as children in Tuscaloosa or Birmingham.”

The study is slated to work with several physicians in Pickens County.