A new device marketed to parents as an early detection device for autism has specialists debating whether the technology will become a powerful autism screening tool for doctors, or a do-it-yourself recipe for parental anxiety.
For around $200 dollars, parents can now order a LENA Language and Autism Screen (LAS) designed to detect early signs of autism in their toddlers' daily chatter at home.
The LAS device -- an iPod sized recorder that fits into specially designed overalls -- was designed after five years of research by the non-profit LENA foundation that is seeking to "develop advanced technology for the early screening, diagnosis, research, and treatment of language delays and disorders in children and adults," according to their Web site.
To use LAS, parents simply let their 24-month to 48-month-old children wear the device and overalls for a full 12-hour day. Then parents can ship the device back to LENA where employees use their acoustic algorithms to compare the child's vocalizations to those of other children analyzed in the LENA database. Parents then get an assessment in the mail.
"It's not a diagnosis, it's a detection. We wouldn't recommend someone use this screen as a diagnosis," said Mia Moe, director of communications at the LENA Foundation. "You really need to bring this information to a professional."
To get a child diagnosed with autism, parents typically get a referral from a pediatrician or school, and then see a specialist for a lengthy diagnostic interview. The diagnostic tests can take hours, and parents report waiting weeks or even several months for an appointment with specialists. After a diagnosis, they then face a slew of products marketed to help the mysterious disorder.
"As a parent there are a lot of products coming out at us all days," said Marguerite Kirst Colston, the vice president for constituent relations at the Autism Society and mother of a 9-year-old boy with autism. "Perhaps it could be a good additive, but as a screening tool – as a parent, I paused."
Moe said the idea to adapt the LENA technology to the general public came from two members of LENA's scientific advisory board who were parents of children with autism. The board members thought the LENA research could be applied to autism screening.
"Parents typically know there's something going on," said Moe. "But most regular visits with the pediatricians are 8-15 minutes at the most."
The goal, Moe said was to help parents screen their children and get a diagnosis earlier.
The average age to be diagnosed with autism is about 5 years old, however, a diagnosis of autism at age of 2 "can be reliable, valid, and stable," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
But children with autism may also be misdiagnosed with speech problems or behavioral problems before receiving an autism diagnosis, which can delay the treatment process by years, researchers say.
"I think something like this is intriguing -- language is the reason for why a majority of children are referred to specialists for autism," said Dr. Chet Johnson, professor and chair of pediatrics at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. "I think the other thing that's driving this is that for the children we are diagnosing -- we sure wish it happened sooner."