Remote tools may offer personalized autism treatments

Team develops way to examine tasks normally done in research setting

Parents with infants at high risk of autism may soon be able to engage in laboratory-grade assessment from home. Using a new tool developed at Purdue, researchers can track red flags for autism in infancy, potentially helping children receive targeted therapy much earlier.

The tool, Parent-Administered Neurodevelopmental Assessment, or PANDABox, was developed by researcher Bridgette Kelleher, an assistant professor of clinical psychology and director of Purdue’s Neurodevelopmental Family Lab.

The tool allows Kelleher’s team to conduct tasks that are typically only done in research settings — such as studies of eye movements, vocal acoustics and psychophysiology — entirely from a distance. The goal: To use the data to better understand the developmental progression of autism features across large, diverse cohorts of children, setting the stage for personalized, targeted treatment.

“The brain changes rapidly during the first year of life, so if we are not detecting symptoms in children until they are three or four, we are missing a great opportunity to support their development,” says Kelleher, who studies autism in high-risk infants and co-directs the Purdue Autism Research Center. “We certainly don’t want to rush a diagnosis, but having some pre-diagnostic supports could significantly help these children for the long-term.”

Kelleher also leads a 35-member interdisciplinary Purdue team, focused on developing a Purdue Omnityping Kit for Individualized Treatment (POcKIT), a home-based data collection kit used by researchers to examine multiple sources of autism risk within single individuals.

In contrast to PANDABox – which focuses on clinical, behavioral and psychophysiological indicators of autism — POcKIT collects information about biomarkers, genetics and exposures.

“We live in a digital, technology-driven world, and telehealth has enormous potential to improve the quality of lives for children and families affected by autism,” Kelleher says.

“Although many individuals with autism thrive, others need substantial supports. Our goal is to harness Purdue’s strengths in health, technology, big data and neuroscience to bring more personalized, effective supports directly to families. It’s a big idea, but we look forward to the challenge.”