By Addy Hatch, WSU News

A device developed by two WSU students to help doctors diagnose autism in very young children was honored at an annual health innovations competition recently.

With support from the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, WSU seniors Lars Neuenschwander and TJ Goble entered their Appiture technology in the Holloman Health Innovation Challenge, sponsored by the University of Washington. The duo won both the $10,000 Herbert B. Jones Foundation second-place prize and the $2,500 Kent & Lisa Sacia Digital Health Prize.

Appiture is a device that tests for the possibility of autism spectrum disorder quickly and conveniently.  It’s based on research by Georgina Lynch, assistant professor in the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, whose work showed differences in how children’s eyes react to light.

“Professor Lynch noticed that in kids with autism, their eyes are extremely sensitive to light,” Goble said. “When the pupil is stimulated by a camera flash or a penlight, it takes longer for the pupil to shrink and longer for it to regrow than for children who don’t have autism.”

Lynch approached the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute at WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture to turn her research into a marketable product. Neuenschwander, a bioengineering major, and Goble, a neuroscience major, are both Frank Institute fellows.

“We started on the project in late August,” Neuenschwander said. “We’ve outlined how to build a device using Dr. Lynch’s technology and now we’re working on prototyping and actual assembly.” They expect to unveil the prototype in late April at the WSU Business Plan Competition.

The camera-integrated handheld device will provide pediatricians and family doctors with an objective tool to screen for autism in children as young as 2. The test takes minutes, unlike the current screening procedure, a questionnaire that can take more than an hour to complete. Using that screening, the average age of an autism diagnosis is 4, which prevents some children from taking advantage of helpful early intervention programs.

Neuenschwander and Goble say they’ll use the prize money from the Health Innovation Challenge for further development of the Appiture software and hardware. As Frank Institute fellows they’ve received specialized education in moving technology from an idea to a product.

Following graduation, Goble will head to Austin, Texas, for a position in software sales, while continuing to work part-time on bringing Appiture to market. Neuenschwander has plans to pursue development of the product full-time at a research lab in Spokane.

Said Neuenschwander, “This was a problem that was very easy to get behind. People should get out there and support more research to benefit people who have autism. It can really have an impact on kids’ lives going into the future.”