Early screening for autism spectrum disorder will be improved in Victoria, Australia, thanks to the work of Menzies scholar Dr Josephine Barbaro and her colleagues at La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC).
The Victorian Government has announced a $1.1 million package to support families to recognise and address the early signs of autism, and has contracted OTARC to provide specialised training for maternal and child health nurses, so they can build their skills and confidence to detect the early signs of autism in babies and toddlers and provide ongoing monitoring. All maternal and child health nurses in Victoria will receive the training as part of their professional development.
The training is based on the work of Dr Barbaro, a senior research fellow at OTARC and co-founder of Australia’s first ‘Early Assessment Clinic’ for autism, who led a ground breaking study called the Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS). The method she developed in the study reliably identifies a set of behaviours, or red flags, that are characteristic of children with autism from as young as 12 months old.
Red flags in children aged under two include infrequency or inconsistency in behaviours including making eye contact, making gestures like pointing at objects, responding to their name being called and imitating or copying others' activities.
Research shows that early diagnoses and intervention improves outcomes for children with autism. With an accuracy of 81 percent – more than seven times that of any other early detection tool – Dr Barbaro’s SACS method is currently the most reliable tool for identifying autism early.
Dr Barbaro completed her PhD project on 'Prospective Identification of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Infancy: The Social Attention and Communication Study' with the assistance of a 2016 Menzies Allied Health Scholarship. She was also awarded the Menzies Foundation Allied Health Sciences Grant of $25,000 in 2012 to contribute to her work on the prospective identification of Autism Spectrum Disorder in infancy and toddlerhood. In 2016 the ASDetect app, which is based on Dr Barbaro’s research, won the National iAward for Research and Development Project of the year.