"Online communities are used as platforms by parents to verify developmental and health concerns related to their child."
That was the starting point for the study results reported by Ben-Sasson & Yom-Tov  (open-access available here) who approached an increasingly important issue related to how the Internet and social media in particular, is fast becoming one of the 'go-to' options when it comes to parental concerns about their child's development and the question: could it be autism?
So: "we analyzed online queries posed by parents who were concerned that their child might have ASD and categorized the warning signs they mentioned according to ASD [autism spectrum disorder]-specific and non-ASD-specific domains." The online queries included for study came from "the Yahoo Answers platform" between June 2006 and December 2013. There's a lesson there to reiterate that the Internet is an open platform and what you post is typically in the public domain and hence fodder for many different purposes...
Authors turned up quite a few thousand queries, determining that over 1000 were "posted by parents who suspected their child might have autism". They randomly selected 195 to be used as the basis for this study. I personally don't know why 195 were selected and not rounded up to say 200, but ho-hum. Content analysis - analysing the content of the post! - was undertaken first "to rate a child's risk of ASD as either low, medium, or high". High risk was defined "as concerns related to at least two types of ASD-specific sign, 1 from the RRBI domain and another from the Social and Communication domains" among other things. Then content analysis was used to "identify the types of warning signs noted by parents." From these analyses: "each query received an ASD global risk score and was coded for either presence or absence of each sign domain and its subdomains."
Results: from the 195 queries selected, the vast majority were posted in relation to a boy and most concerned a boy who was aged under 3 years. Contrary to the title of this blog post - 'My child is not talking' - the majority of queries were actually in relation to repetitive and restricted behaviors and interests (RRBI) although concerns related to language were not too far behind in frequency. In relation to those categorisations of low, medium and high risk groups, over half of the queries were labelled as high risk. Interestingly, there were fewer language concerns noted in those allocated to the low risk group than the medium or high risk groups, so perhaps I wasn't so far off with using those 'my child is not talking' words in the title.
But things didn't just stop there for the authors, as the words "test the efficacy of machine learning tools in classifying the child's risk of ASD based on the parent's narrative" are also noted in their paper. Machine learning as in, 'giving computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed' according to one definition, is something that has cropped up on the blog before with autism in mind (see here for example). This led to the production of a decision tree - yes or no - "for distinguishing low-risk queries from medium- and high-risk queries." This is interesting but I'd perhaps like to see it tested independently before I say too much more.
In these days of continued austerity and seemingly evermore limited resources when it comes to things like autism assessment and screening for various reasons, this kind of work has an important place. Certainly I don't think posting symptoms on-line with ever replace autism screening, and one has to bear in mind that at least here in the UK, we might have (knowingly or unknowingly) already initiated population autism screening in children (see here) as a consequence of changes to the Healthy Child Program. But with the technological advances being made where machine learning and the connected artificial intelligence are starting to make strides in relation to science and medicine, I don't doubt that one day parents will be typing in their child's symptoms on-line and somehow and somewhere Dr Google or some related system(s) might be talking back...
Music and more bad lip reading applied to Star Wars: No, it's not the future (and watch Chewie holler).
 Ben-Sasson A. & Yom-Tov E. Online Concerns of Parents Suspecting Autism Spectrum Disorder in Their Child: Content Analysis of Signs and Automated Prediction of Risk. J Med Internet Res. 2016 Nov 22;18(11):e300.
Ben-Sasson A, & Yom-Tov E (2016). Online Concerns of Parents Suspecting Autism Spectrum Disorder in Their Child: Content Analysis of Signs and Automated Prediction of Risk. Journal of medical Internet research, 18 (11) PMID: 27876688