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Munroe-Meyer Institute hopeful that new autism diagnostic tool will help more Nebraska families

Will be used to diagnose children years ahead of current national average age
Posted at 7:54 PM, Mar 27, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-27 20:58:21-04

OMAHA, Neb. — Doctors are calling it a game-changer. Autism specialists, too. And soon, it'll be available for more families.

On Wednesday, UNMC's Munroe-Meyer Institute, which specializes in the treatment and care of people with disabilities, announced that it would be expand the use of the EarliPoint Evaluation for Autism.

It's being seen as something that could get children diagnosed with autism earlier, and on care plans, faster. The device used for the tests is unassuming, a tablet propped up like a computer monitor, used to play videos. Children who are being tested watch the videos and data is collected according to their eye movements, up to 120 times per second. The video evaluation takes about 20 minutes.

According to a release by the Munroe-Meyer Institute, "children 16 to 30 months old on the autism spectrum concentrate more on different areas of the video — objects instead of faces, for example — than their neurotypically developing peers."

The system received FDA approval last year for use on children ages 16 months to 2.5 years old. MMI is the first facility in Nebraska to use the technology in a clinical setting, and has been testing it with this age group since then, but now will expand ongoing research to children up to eight years old.

“This is a total game changer in terms of being able to help people access diagnoses quickly and efficiently,” said Dr. Alice Shillingsburg, director of the integrated Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at MMI. “And hopefully, we find out this device is effective for older children as well.”

The company that makes EarliPoint Evaluation devices is called EarliTec Diagnostics Inc., a Georgia-based company that says the device carries an 80% accuracy rate. The MMI says that the test isn't the only element that will determine a child's diagnoses, but it will be paired with other existing tools.

MMI has two of the devices available in the toddler clinic available for families to make appointments for beginning next month. Without the EarliPoint Evaluation test, early autism diagnostic appointments are usually four hours long, but using the new technology is making entire appointments about an hour and 15 minutes.

That's something that could aid Nebraska facilities in cutting down the waitlist for autism diagnosis in Nebraska, and the country, according to Shillingsburg, but also helps families get care plans together faster.

“We know that early intervention is key to best-case trajectory and development," Shillingsburg said. "Nationwide, the average age of diagnosis is four or five years old, and ‘early’ intervention isn't applicable at that age. You can see what this means for hundreds of thousands of families in terms of getting an early diagnosis and then accessing care.”

The Munroe-Meyer Institute is directing families to this site to join the waitlist for appointments.