As reported on ABC News, a new device is available for the screening and early detection of autism in children. It was designed by the LENA Foundation and is available to the general public for $200. However, it has been greeted with mixed emotions by the medical establishment because of the complex nature of diagnosing autism, and some see it as yet another way to flame the fires of parental anxiety.

The device is called the LENA Language and Autism Screen (LAS) and is essentially a digital recorder that monitors what a child (between the ages of 2 to 4) says over a 12 hour period. The recorder is then sent back to the company where their child’s voice is subjected to a series of acoustic algorithms and compared to other children’s voices in their database. Parents are then sent an assessment of their child.

Experts in the field, as well as the makers of the LAS, are quick to point out that this is not a definitive diagnosis of autism, but merely an initial screen that can be administered at home. In order to obtain a truly valid and comprehensive diagnosis, parents need to obtain a referral from their pediatrician or school which will allow their child to go through the diagnostic process with a trained profession. The interview, however, can take hours, and parents can wait weeks or even months for an appointment with a trained specialist.

The LAS offers a faster and more convenient way to screen for autism, but some experts are concerned about putting technology into hands of untrained people. They also point out that while the LAS records the child’s voice, a key determinant of autism, they stress that not all children with speech problems are autistic, and vocalization patterns are only a part of the entire picture. Autism also affects how a child responds to external stimuli, something the LAS might not be able to effectively detect.

Even still, the makers of the LAS indicate that this is just another way for parents to be more informed, and they designed the device to help parents, clinicians, and researchers alike, keeping in mind that early detection and intervention are the best hopes for treatment.

Autism is a developmental brain disorder that usually begins to show symptoms in children by the age of two. The condition is characterized by impaired social and communication skills, and is more prevalent in boys than girls. The causes of autism are not well known, though there is currently a strong argument for a genetic component. According to the Autism Society of America, autism affects 1-1.5 million Americans and is the fastest growing developmental condition (10% to 17% annual growth) affecting 1 in 150 births.

If you suspect that your child may be exhibiting symptoms of autism, talk to your pediatrician before making any definitive conclusions. As mentioned above, diagnosis is a complex and emotionally volatile process and should be overseen by a trained professional. For more information, check out the website for the Autism Society of America.