Green light for diagnostic autism app raises questions, concerns


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the okay to an app designed to help clinicians diagnose autism in children, labeling it safe for use.

But it’s still unclear whether the technology is effective, researchers say, raising concerns that it could actually disrupt the standard diagnosis process and, in some cases, lead to delays in starting therapy.

“I think what they’ve done looks beautiful and is an example of what money can buy,” says Catherine Lord, distinguished professor of psychiatry and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-creator of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, considered the ‘gold standard’ for diagnosing autism. “But it may cause more harm than help.”

The app, which is targeted at primary care physicians and pediatricians, was created by Cognoa, a California-based company founded by autism researcher Dennis Wall. It is part of a machine-learning-based system called Canvas Dx that uses algorithms to evaluate videos and other information about a child, uploaded by their parents and doctor. The company aims to release the app and the rest of the Canvas Dx system in the United States by the end of 2021, says Sharief Taraman, Cognoa’s chief medical officer.

“We believe Canvas Dx will help primary care physicians diagnose autism equitably in young children, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or geography, and hope that use of Canvas Dx may lead to shortening time-to-diagnosis, which can enable initiation of earlier interventions,” Taraman wrote in an email to Spectrum.

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