Confronted by apparent delays in their child’s early development, many parents experience anxiety about the possibility of autism. Amy Wetherby, a distinguished research professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Florida State University and a pioneer in Autism Spectrum Disorder research, understands those concerns. Working with her team at the Florida State University College of Medicine's Autism Institute, Wetherby has developed Baby Navigator, a user-friendly website allowing parents to identify early signs of autism in their children.
The new website assists with early diagnosis and intervention, both of which are crucial for allowing children with autism to achieve their full potential.
“Baby Navigator is for parents to easily access the online resources that we've developed,” Wetherby was quoted as saying in a March 2019 report by Medical Xpress.
According to Wetherby, “Baby Navigator has two purposes: to provide information on early development and to provide information on early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder."
Wetherby noted that over a decade has passed since the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all children be screened for autism between 18 and 24 months.
"The reality is very few doctors do that,” Wetherby said. “And the screening tool that's widely used is not very accurate at younger ages."
The research behind Baby Navigator, and the tools it offers, has been made possible by funding from a variety of sources, including the National Institutes of Health, the Florida Legislature, and the generosity of an anonymous donor. The site provides parents with numerous features, including video clips, photo illustrations, and a screening tool for children between 9 and 18 months.
Wetherby acknowledges the ambition and importance of the project she and her colleagues have undertaken.
“We're trying to lead the nation," she was quoted as saying. "We have new milestones we want to teach everybody that are much more precise. They're about social communication growth. We have pictures. We have videos. We've taken our growth charts down to 6 months.”
According to Wetherby, the goal of her work is to help most or all children with autism develop the skills to succeed in general education kindergarten.
“It's cost-saving and is the best learning environment,” Wetherby says. “From there, they have a much better chance of graduating from high school and getting a job or going to college."
Wetherby’s research has already proven beneficial to parents of children with autism. One example is Laura Iyampallai, a mother from West Palm Beach, Florida who noticed that her daughter wasn’t communicating like other babies, and couldn’t be taken out of the house without a meltdown. After dealing with criticism of her parenting and an interventionist who ignored her concerns, a desperate Iyampallai was connected with
Wetherby through a speech-language-pathologist friend. The intervention of Wetherby and her colleagues, performed by long-distance video coaching, proved to be hugely beneficial for Iyampallai’s daughter, dramatically improving her communication skills and ending her meltdowns.
According to Medical Xpress, Baby Navigator has proven so effective that it is now being used exclusively by Alix Casler, chair of the Orlando Health hospital system’s pediatrics department, and two of his partners.
"The cost for one child with autism can range from $1 million to $2.4 million over a lifetime,” Wetherby was quoted as saying. “And a lot of that is adult care that we can prevent. I want kids with autism to grow up and be employed.”