Identifying autistic kids as early as possible is very important, so that appropriate clinical interventions and upbringing can have the most beneficial effect. Now a new study in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences has shown that analyzing the unique signature of children’s pre-speech vocalizations can be a pretty good way to identify potential cases of autism. This is done using a fairly simple voice recorder called LENA that kids wear in their clothing for all day recording. The data is then uploaded to a central server where it is analyzed for specific vocal signatures. Interestingly, although the study was conducted on American kids, the same software should be able to work with kids from other languages and cultures.
Researchers analyzed 1,486 all-day recordings from 232 children (or more than 3.1 million automatically identified child utterances) through an algorithm based on the 12 acoustic parameters associated with vocal development.
The most important was targeted syllabification—the ability of children to produce well-formed syllables with rapid movements of the jaw and tongue during vocalization.
Infants show voluntary control of syllabification and voice in the first months of life and refine this skill as they acquire language.
The autistic sample showed little evidence of development on the parameters as indicated by low correlations between the parameter values and the children’s ages (from 1 to 4 years).
On the other hand, all 12 parameters showed statistically significant development for both typically developing children and those with language delays.
LENA is digital language processor and language analysis software. The processor fits into the pocket of specially designed children’s clothing and records everything the child vocalizes but can reliably distinguish child vocalizations from its cries and vegetative sounds, other voices and extraneous environmental sounds.
Recordings with the device have been collected since 2006. Parents responded to advertisements and indicated if their children had been diagnosed with autism or language delay. A speech-language clinician employed by the project also evaluated many of the children with a reported diagnosis of language delay. Many of the parents of children with language delay and all of the children with autism supplied documentation from the diagnosing clinicians, who were independent of the research.
The recordings were made by the parents at home and in the other natural environments of the children, by simply turning the recorder on and placing in the special children’s clothing, and then worn all day.
Press release: Autism has unique vocal signature, new technology reveals …
Abstract in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences: Automated vocal analysis of naturalistic recordings from children with autism, language delay, and typical development
Flashback: LENA Audio Monitor Analyses Speech Patterns to Help Detect Autism Earlier