Autism has unique vocal signature, new technology reveals

July 19, 2010, University of Kansas

A new automated vocal analysis technology could fundamentally change the study of language development as well as the screening for autism spectrum disorders and language delay, reports a study in the July 19 online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The LENA™ (Language Environment Analysis) system automatically labeled infant and child vocalizations from recordings and thereafter an automatic acoustic analysis designed by the researchers showed that pre-verbal vocalizations of very young children with autism are distinctly different from those of typically developing children with 86 percent accuracy.

The system also differentiated typically developing children and children with autism from children with language delay based on the automated vocal analysis.

The 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 of these parameters proved to be the ones targeting 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.

The research team, led by D. Kimbrough Oller, professor and chair of excellence in audiology and speech language pathology at the University of Memphis, called the findings a proof of concept that automated analysis of massive samples of vocalizations can now be included in the scientific repertoire for research on vocal development.

Although aberrations in the speech (or lack of it) of children with autism spectrum disorders has been examined by researchers and clinicians for more than 20 years, vocal characteristics are not included in standard criteria for diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, said Steven F. Warren, professor of applied behavioral science and vice provost for research at the University of Kansas, who contributed to the study and was among the first to see the potential of the technology for autism spectrum disorders screening.

"A small number of studies had previously suggested that children with autism have a markedly different vocal signature, but until now, we have been held back from using this knowledge in clinical applications by the lack of measurement technology," said Warren.

Warren predicts that LENA, which allow the inexpensive collection and analysis of magnitudes of data unimagined in language research before now, could significantly impact the screening, assessment and treatment of autism and the behavioral sciences in general.

Since the analysis is not based on words, but rather on sound patterns, the technology theoretically could potentially be used to screen speakers of any language for autism spectrum disorders, Warren said. "The physics of human speech are the same in all people as far as we know."

Warren says that children with autism spectrum disorders can be diagnosed at 18 months but that the median age of diagnosis is 5.7 years in the United States.

"This technology could help pediatricians screen children for ASD to determine if a referral to a specialist for a full diagnosis is required and get those children into earlier and more effective treatments."

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.

The discovery that it was possible to differentiate recordings of the autistic children from those of the typically developing children by the totally objective method of automated vocal analysis inspired the researchers to consider both the possibility of earlier screening and diagnosis and earlier intervention for children with autism.

"Autism interventions remain expensive and arduous. This tool may help us to develop cost-effective treatments and better understand how they work and how to keep them working," said Warren.

LENA could allow parents to continue and supplement language enrichment therapy at home and assess their own effectiveness for themselves, Warren said. "In this way, LENA could function similarly to the way a pedometer measures how much exercise one gets from walking."

Explore further: Young drivers with autism spectrum disorder may need more time to learn basic driving skills

Related Stories

Young drivers with autism spectrum disorder may need more time to learn basic driving skills

June 12, 2018
When first learning to drive, young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have more difficulty with basic driving skills compared to those with typical development (TD), reports a study in the Journal of Developmental ...

Team develops framework to identify genetic missense mutations linked to autism spectrum disorder

June 11, 2018
Missense mutations occur when there is a change in one gene's DNA base pair, and the change results in the substitution of one amino acid for another in the gene's protein. Mutations that disrupt the function of proteins ...

Food allergies connected to children with autism spectrum disorder

June 8, 2018
A new study from the University of Iowa finds that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more than twice as likely to suffer from a food allergy than children who do not have ASD.

Screening may miss signs of autism, especially in girls: study

May 21, 2018
(HealthDay)—An important checklist used to screen for autism can miss subtle clues in some children, delaying their eventual diagnosis.

Baby teeth give clues to autism's origins, detection

May 30, 2018
A close examination of baby teeth is giving new insight into the roots of autism—and ways to spot it early.

Link found between neurotransmitter imbalance, brain connectivity in those with autism

June 6, 2018
One in 59 children in the United States lives with a form of autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The signs of autism begin in early childhood and can affect individuals differently. ...

Recommended for you

Blood signature could improve early tuberculosis diagnosis

June 19, 2018
A gene signature in the bloodstream could reveal whether someone is going to develop active tuberculosis (TB) disease months before symptoms begin. Such a signature has now been developed by a team led by the Francis Crick ...

Scientists uncover a factor important for Zika virus host species restriction

June 19, 2018
Princeton University researchers Qiang Ding, Alexander Ploss, and colleagues have identified one of the mechanisms by which Zika virus (ZIKV) circumvents immune control to replicate in human cells. The paper detailing this ...

Combining different malaria vaccines could reduce cases by 91 percent

June 19, 2018
Using two experimental anti-malarial vaccines, which work in different ways, can greatly reduce the number of malaria infections in animal studies.

Toothpaste and hand wash may contribute to antibiotic resistance

June 19, 2018
A common ingredient in toothpaste and hand wash could be contributing to antibiotic resistance, according to University of Queensland research.

Children's immune system could hold the key to preventing sepsis

June 19, 2018
Children's immune systems could hold the key to preventing life-threatening infections and sepsis, a new study has revealed.

Beware of getting a tattoo if your immune system isn't up to scratch, doctors warn

June 18, 2018
Getting a tattoo may have some unexpected complications if your immune system isn't up to scratch, warn doctors in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.