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Brad Ferguson team designs app to assess ASD social interaction

Sept. 8, 2022

Brad Ferguson, assistant research professor in the Department of Health Psychology, alongside co-principal investigators David Beversdorf and Fang Wang, is changing the game for social assessment for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) using a smartphone app. With a $100,000 grant from the Coulter Biomedical Accelerator program, clinical Principal Investigator Brad Ferguson and the team, called CORE Autism, is developing a smartphone/watch application to collect real-time voice data from clinical trial participants to objectively assess social interactions. 

ASD affects one in every 44 children and is characterized by patterns of repetitive behavior and social deficits. This creates a communication barrier between researchers and clinical trial participants, making it difficult to determine if a new treatment is safe and effective in targeting these social deficits. According to Ferguson, relying on short, in-person interviews with trial participants may not always capture all social encounters. This can lead to an incomplete assessment of the child’s verbal abilities in clinical trials, which slows down progress that would push treatments to the market to start helping people. Using the team’s technology could make the process more effective and streamlined for the trial patients and the research teams alike.

“Lots of people with ASD meet new friends on the internet through voice apps and online multiplayer video games, so I’m excited to capture these social encounters,” Dr. Ferguson said.  

The app will record and evaluate day-to-day-interactions such as these, which will allow for a more complete view of an individual’s interactions, without the “middleman” of a parent or interviewer. 

The current target market for this product is pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations engaged in clinical trials in ASD. The app development and potential market does not stop here, as this tool is designed to be adaptable, and the team can add new functionalities as they see fit.  

“The nice thing about our app is that we can update it very easily. For example, we plan to add stress assessments and location data so we can measure the effectiveness of clinical trials targeting anxiety in certain places,” Dr. Ferguson said.  

The possibilities of a tool like this are vast; the app can level out inequalities in representation in clinical trials and improve treatment research as soon as it is implemented.  

“I hope our research will lessen the burden on patients with ASD while also providing real-world and objective data on social communication for those conducting clinical trials in ASD. Our application will also make it easier for people from rural areas to participate in clinical trials. It’s a win for all parties involved,” said Dr. Ferguson.